Despite being one of the most preventable forms of cancer with early screening, colorectal cancer is now the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. In an effort to combat the increased cases among younger people, a panel of experts has shifted the recommended age for colorectal screenings to 45 (rather than the previous 50 y.o).
About 18,000 people under age 50 will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in the U.S. this year, and more than 3,600 are projected to die, the American Cancer Society estimates. They provide this more detailed recommendation for people at average risk (but please speak to your provider to learn what is best for your health):
- People at average risk of colorectal cancer should start regular screening at age 45.
- People who are in good health and with a life expectancy of more than 10 years should continue regular colorectal cancer screening through the age of 75.
- People ages 76 through 85 should make a decision with their medical provider about whether to be screened, based on their own personal preferences, life expectancy, overall health, and prior screening history.
- People over 85 should no longer get colorectal cancer screening.
The research data that was examined showed that adults who were 45 in 2016 had a similar incidence of colorectal cancer as people who were 50 in 1992, during a time before colorectal cancer screening was widely used. The reasons for the rise are uncertain. “We don’t understand a lot about the causes, the biology, or how to prevent early onset of the disease,” said Phil Daschner, a program director in NCI’s Division of Cancer Biology. “And that’s important to learn more about because it may affect [approaches for] the treatment and survivorship of early-onset colon cancer.”
While some heredietary factors, such as a prevalence of colorectal cancer or some types of polyps can result in a higher risk for colorectal cancer, research shows that only 10% to 20% of early-onset colorectal cancers are caused by inherited factors.
What factors are contributing to the rise of cases?
While several risk factors are common indicators for those that experience colorectal concerns in older groups, including smoking, obesity, and inactivity, the cause behind the rise of cases among younger people is still not completely understood. Initial research has surrounded several factors including inflammation, gut health, and diet.
The factors being interrelated highlight the impact that certain foods (primarily diets high in processed meats and fats and low in dietary fiber) can have on gut health and the resulting inflammation to the digestive system. Processed foods have been found to lower the variety of healthy bacteria in your gut, which can leave you vulnerable to digestive issues and prevent your body from being able to combat unhealthy gut bacteria. Don’t assume that processed foods are limited to only fast food and the classic “junk food”. We share here how the umbrella of processed foods covers a much larger scope than most people consider when choosing their groceries.
It is well understood that processed foods lead to inflammation. The resulting issues can range from digestive upset, increased pain, diabetes, heart disease, and more. This is caused by the high levels of sugar, unhealthy dietary fat, and other ingredients often found in processed foods. Too much of these ingredients can wreak havoc on your body. Read here for foods that help reduce inflammation and help your body function better.
Obesity also plays a large role, with 17% of younger adults with colorectal cancer being obese and 50% overweight. This risk factor mirrors that found in older adults. The National Cancer Institute states that in a 2016 meta-analysis of 126 studies, individuals who engaged in the highest level of physical activity had a 19% lower risk of colon cancer than those who were the least physically active. This again makes the case for the importance of regular physical activity. The benefits to overall wellness include maintaining a healthy weight, lower risk of diabetes, mental health benefits, cardiovascular strength, decreased pain, and more.
Ways to combat colorectal risk factors
The MD Anderson Cancer Center based in Texas shares, “Probiotic foods contain live bacteria, which may help restore balance and offer protection from harmful bacteria. Eating them is one way to reseed your gut with good bacteria.”
Probiotic foods include:
- Low-fat, plain organic yogurt with live or active cultures
- Kefir (a yogurt-like drink)
- Kombucha tea
- Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi
- Fermented soybeans (miso)
Include regular physical activity in your routine. Don’t worry if every day isn’t an intense, prolonged workout. Building the habit of even carving out fifteen minutes on your busiest days helps you maintain the routine and can still provide the benefits. Check out our weekly exercise archive for ideas to get you started with little or no equipment.
A diet rich in fiber and low in processed foods and fats is a vital factor in decreasing the risk of colorectal cancer. Most people may find that they reach for processed foods when there is a time crunch. Fast food, packaged snacks, pre-cut/pre-prepped foods are all enticing when the day is full with other things on the agenda. Set aside time every week to map out meals, portion out ingredients (include lots of fresh veggies, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins!), so making meals and snacks is not so overwhelming. And, make sure that you are prepared through the day- if you know that you need a snack in the late afternoon, don’t set yourself up and not have anything available. Pack fruits, a few pieces of cheese, a handful of nuts, and other healthy options that we’ve shared here, to ward off hunger and keep you away from processed items.
The takeaway? While the exact causes behind the increase in colorectal cancer in younger groups isn’t known for sure, it is clear that certain lifestyle factors play a role in the risk. The evidence is clear: a balanced diet, regular physical activity, and maintaining preventative care are all cornerstones to overall wellness. Talk to your provider about the different types of colorectal cancer screenings and how to approach this area of your health.