Global Surge in Cancer Cases Among Under-50s Linked to Diet and Lifestyle

by Ella

A concerning surge in cancer cases among individuals under the age of 50 is predominantly driven by lifestyle factors, including diets high in red meat, salt, and alcohol, according to a recent study. Researchers found that the number of cancer cases in this age group has risen by a substantial 79 percent over the last three decades.

This increase is especially pronounced in affluent countries such as the UK, highlighting the significant influence of lifestyle choices. The study examined data from the Global Burden of Disease 2019 Study, assessing 29 types of cancer across 204 countries and regions. The analysis encompassed new cases, fatalities, health implications, and risk factors for individuals aged 14 to 49, estimating an annual percentage increase for each year.


While genetics undoubtedly contribute to the rise in cancer rates among the young, lifestyle factors appear to play a substantial role. High-salt diets, tobacco use, and alcohol consumption are identified as the primary risk factors for the most prevalent cancers in this age group.


In 2019 alone, there were 3.26 million new cancer diagnoses in individuals under 50, representing a staggering 79.1 percent increase since 1990. Notably, the most significant increases were observed in prostate and windpipe cancers, rising by 2.28 percent and 2.23 percent annually, respectively—a remarkable 66 percent increase since 2019.


Breast cancer accounted for the largest proportion of cases, with 13.7 cases per 100,000 individuals, as reported in the BMJ findings.


While genetics are acknowledged as a contributing factor, lifestyle choices, particularly diet, emerge as major drivers. Diets characterized by high consumption of red meat and salt, coupled with inadequate intake of fruits and dairy, alongside habits such as alcohol consumption, tobacco use, physical inactivity, and elevated blood sugar levels, are identified as key risk factors for the most common cancers among those under 50.

Alarmingly, approximately two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are classified as overweight or obese by the time they complete primary school, reflecting some of the highest rates worldwide.

Although the progress in cancer survival rates has been remarkable for some types, such as breast and prostate cancers, others, including lung and pancreatic cancers, have experienced only sluggish improvements.

Dr. Xue Li, from the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute and the study’s lead author, observed that early-onset cancer in the UK exhibited an upward trajectory from 1990 to 2010, yet the overall incidence rate remained relatively stable from 2010 to 2019.

Dr. Li commented, “Fortunately, the annual mortality rate from early-onset cancer in the UK has been steadily decreasing, a testament to the outstanding cancer screening and treatment efforts over the past three decades.”

This research comes in the wake of Cancer Research UK’s assertion that advancements in cancer care have saved an estimated 1.2 million lives in the UK since the mid-1980s. These figures include approximately 560,000 fewer lung cancer fatalities, 236,000 fewer stomach cancer deaths, 224,000 fewer bowel cancer deaths, and 17,000 fewer breast cancer deaths.

Dr. Claire Knight, Senior Health Information Manager at Cancer Research UK, noted, “It’s not fully clear what is driving the rise in early-onset cancers, but exposure to risk factors in earlier life, improved cancer detection, and genetic factors might all play a part.” She emphasized the need for further research to explore the causes of early-onset cancer, particularly for specific cancer types, and highlighted ongoing studies focused on identifying younger women at higher risk of breast cancer.



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