Cancer under the age of 50 is increasing globally – why? ThePipaNews

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ThePipaNews

We know what we need to do to reduce the risk of getting cancer, right? Use sunscreen, stop smoking, avoid processed foods, keep fit, lose weight and get enough sleep. But what if much of what causes cancer already happened in our early years, or worse, before we were born. A recent study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University says that may be the case, especially in cancers that occur before age 50 (early-onset cancer).

The most important finding in this study, published in Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology, is that people born after 1990 are at greater risk of developing cancer before the age of 50 than people born in, say, 1970. Which means that young people will be hit harder. burden of cancer than previous generations, with consequential effects on healthcare, finances and families.

What we are exposed to early in life can affect our risk of developing cancer later in life, and this review of cancer trends looks at how these factors can affect early cancers. The exposures that play a role in early life are still not fully understood, but the main ones are diet, lifestyle, the environment and the insects that live in our gut (the microbiome).

When looking at large numbers of people, researchers can see that dietary and lifestyle habits are formed early in life. This is seen in obesity where obese children are more likely to become obese adults. Since obesity is a known risk factor for cancer, it follows that the adults are likely to develop cancer at an earlier age, possibly because they have been exposed to the risk factor for a longer period of time.

Of course, some of these early-onset cancers are detected through better screening programs and earlier diagnosis, contributing to an increased number of new cancers diagnosed annually, worldwide. But that’s not the whole story.

Early-onset cancers have different genetic signatures compared to late-onset cancers and are more likely to have spread than cancers diagnosed later in life. This means that these cancers may need different types of treatment and a more personalized approach that is tailored to the patient’s age at the time the cancer developed.

Intestinal bacteria

The Brigham study looked at 14 cancers and found that the cancer’s genetic makeup and the cancer’s aggressiveness and growth were different in patients who developed it before age 50 compared to those who developed the same cancer after age 50.

This appeared to be more prominent in several types of bowel cancer (colorectal, pancreatic, gastric). One possible reason for this is our diet and microbiome.

Gut bacteria are altered by diets high in sugar, antibiotics and breastfeeding. And as patterns of these things change in society over time, so do the bacteria in our gut. This could support the implementation of sugar taxes recommended by the World Health Organization.

Lots of sweet food on a table.
Gut bacteria are altered by a sugary diet.
Oleksandra Naumenko/Shutterstock

If our healthy cells are programmed in the womb, so can the cells that go on to cause cancer. Maternal diet, obesity and environmental exposures, such as air pollution and pesticides, are known to increase the risk of chronic diseases and cancer.

Conversely, severe restriction of food intake during pregnancy, as seen in starvation, increases the risk of breast cancer in the offspring. Both of these findings would have different implications for societal approaches to reducing cancer risk.

As a hematologist, I care for patients with multiple myeloma, which is an incurable blood cancer that usually affects patients over the age of 70. In recent years, there has been an increased number of younger people diagnosed with this cancer worldwide, which is only partly explained by better screening. This study flags obesity as a major risk factor for early disease, but there are clearly other risk factors that have yet to be discovered.

Understanding what causes early-onset cancer, which exposures really matter, and what can be done to prevent them are some of the first steps in developing prevention strategies for future generations.

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