The older we get, the higher the risk of developing cancer – actually. This is because the biological mechanisms that repair mutations, repair DNA damage and eradicate abnormal cells become less and less effective with age. Because many types of cancer therefore only occur at an advanced age, common early detection measures often only start when people are over 50 or even later.
However, the idea of cancer as a disease of old age seems outdated, as a global survey published in the specialist journal “BMJ” now shows. In it, an international team led by Jianhui Zhao from Zhejiang University in China evaluated the development of 29 types of cancer in people under the age of 50. The data comes from 204 countries and covers the period from 1990 to 2019.
More cancer cases, more deaths
The result: The number of cancer cases in people under the age of 50 has risen significantly in the last 30 years – by 79 percent worldwide. This increase is particularly evident in the 40 to 49 age group, as Zhao and his team determined. The number of cancer-related deaths has increased by 27.7 percent since 1990. As a result, more than a million people under the age of 50 died from cancer worldwide in 2019 alone.
According to the study, the most common early-onset types of cancer are
Bronchial- and lung cancer as well as
as the researchers determined. These types of cancer also account for most of the deaths of people under the age of 50. In contrast, the fastest increase was in nasopharyngeal cancer and prostate cancer, the incidence of which in the younger age group has increased by around 2.3 percent since 1990.
“These results disprove conventional wisdom about what types of cancer to expect in younger people,” comment Ashleigh Hamilton and Helen Coleman of Queen’s University Belfast. According to the physicians not involved in the study, early detection and diagnosis must also be rethought.
Western industrialized countries most affected
However, there are clear regional differences: According to the study, those under 50 in western industrialized countries are particularly badly affected. In North America, the incidence of such cancer cases is now 273 per 100,000, in Western Europe and Australia between 120 and 250 per 100,000 under-50s, Zhao and his colleagues report. But the number of cases is also increasing in regions with a middle-average income such as Eastern Europe, Oceania or Central Asia.
But why? The types of cancer that are now increasingly occurring in younger people were actually considered classic diseases of old age. But that is obviously no longer true. In search of possible reasons for the prevalence of so many cancer cases, Zhao and his team took a closer look at some common risk factors.
Lifestyle as the main risk factor
It turned out that in addition to genetic factors and environmental pollution, lifestyle probably plays a decisive role. “Risk factors in nutrition, such as red meat, a lot of salt, little fruit, vegetables and milk, but also alcohol consumption and smoking are the main factors behind the early onset of cancer,” the researchers report. There were also clear connections with obesity and increased blood sugar levels.
The team therefore believes that at least some of these cancer cases could be delayed, if not avoided, by adopting a healthier lifestyle. However, to break the trend, more education and better early detection are important, as Hamilton and Coleman emphasize. “We urgently need more prevention and early detection measures for such early-onset cancers,” they write. Cancer therapies would also have to be adapted for younger patients.
Nine things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer
Cancer and prevention researchers regularly emphasize the importance of prevention. They have summarized the following measures:
Avoid being overweight Move every day Eat healthy No smoking Drink as little alcohol as possible Avoid carcinogenic substances Protect from UV radiation Vaccination against cancer (hepatitis B; HPV) Use offers for early cancer detection
Von Nadja Podbregar