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February 6, 2019

Charted: Millennials' growing risk of obesity-linked cancers

Daily Briefing

    As U.S. obesity rates rise, younger adults are increasingly at risk for several obesity-related cancers, according to a study published Sunday in The Lancet Public Health.

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    Study details

    For the study, researchers from the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the National Cancer Institute looked at new cancer diagnoses among people ages 25 to 84 between 1995 and 2014 for 30 common types of cancer. Twelve of the cancers studied are associated with obesity. The researchers looked at annual changes in cancer incidence rates for patients by age group. Each age group spanned five years, with the youngest age group including 25 to 29 year olds and the oldest including 80 to 84 year olds.

    Obesity-related cancer rates are on the rise

    The researchers found that the rates of six of the 12 obesity-related cancers have risen steadily among young adults ages 25 to 49. The researchers found the steepest increases among the youngest adult groups. For instance, people born in 1985 had twice the risk of developing pancreatic cancer as those born in 1950, at comparable ages. In addition, millennials were almost five times as likely as baby boomers to develop kidney cancer.

    By contrast, the researchers found that rates for all but two of the 18 cancers not associated with obesity either stabilized or dropped among the youngest adult groups.

    The researchers also ranked the 30 cancers in the study by frequency and found that, while many obesity-related cancer rates are steadily increasing among younger age groups, many of those cancers are still relatively rare.


    Ahmedin Jemal, senior author on the study and scientific VP of surveillance and health services research at ACS, said this study could serve as a warning of "an increased burden of obesity-related cancers in older adults in the future and calls for actions to mitigate this burden."

    Hyuna Sung, an author on the study, suggested several possible explanations for the increase in obesity. For one, she pointed to the "food environment we are living in," which she said "promotes over-consumption of energy-dense, high-sugar/nutrient-poor foods that are pervasive and much more affordable and available to all." At the same time, Sung said, "[P]hysical activity has been 'engineered' out of [our] lifestyle due to energy saving technologies, such as via the use of cars instead of bicycles."

    Sung added that providers need to address the obesity epidemic by increasing screenings and counseling for obesity. "Less than half of primary care physicians regularly assess for body mass index despite national screening recommendation," she said.

    In addition, Sung said policymakers need to considered regulatory interventions to address this epidemic, such as "restrictions on advertising calorie-dense food and drinks, taxes on sugary drinks, [and] urban planning … to promote physical activity" with more sidewalks and bike lanes (Carroll, Reuters, 2/4; Bakalar, New York Times, 2/4; O'Reilly, Axios, 2/4).

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