Why Is Colorectal Cancer Rising Among Young Adults?

Sep 01, 2023

Why Is Colorectal Cancer Rising Among Young Adults?

Alarm bells are ringing about the increase in colorectal diagnoses among younger adults under age 50. Here, we explore this increase and what might be behind the alarming trend.

Thanks to awareness and screening efforts, colorectal cancers have steadily declined in the United States since the 1980s — dropping by about 1% a year between 2011 and 2019 alone. Since the 1990s, however, some of this headway has been lost to a steady increase in diagnoses among people under age 50 — colorectal cancer diagnoses in younger adults have been rising by about 1%-2% a year.

So, why the increase? The short answer is that we don’t know but have some very good ideas.

The team of board-certified colorectal surgeons here at Fairfax Colon & Rectal Surgery is on the front lines of colorectal cancers, which include colon cancer and rectal cancer.

In the following, we take a closer look at the rise in colorectal cancers among young adults and why experts believe this is happening.

Understanding the numbers

While alarm bells may be sounding, we want to first put these numbers into perspective so we don’t create unnecessary fear. 

In 2023, the American Cancer Society predicts there will be about 153,000 diagnoses of colorectal cancer in the US, making them the third most diagnosed cancer among men and women (excluding skin cancer). 

Of this number, about 18,000 of these colorectal cancer diagnoses will be among people under age 50. As you can see, this isn’t a huge number, and the risk for colorectal cancer among young adults is under 1%. 

While the numbers are relatively small, they’ve been ticking upward for the last three decades, which indicates an alarming trend.

Why the rise in colorectal cancers in young adults?

Unfortunately, we don’t have a satisfying answer to this question as we don’t know the exact cause and effect between younger adults and colorectal cancer. Historically, younger adults have developed these types of cancers because of genetic factors, such as Lynch Syndrome, but there’s been no increase in these genetic causes.

This leaves us to consider lifestyle factors and environment as the likely culprits. Many colorectal experts believe that the trend in colorectal cancers among younger adults may be due to:

  • Being overweight or having obesity
  • Low-fiber diets
  • High-fat diets
  • Too much red meat
  • Sedentary lifestyle

These risk factors are true for all age groups; however, increasingly bad diets and the continued weight problem in the US may explain why younger adults are more vulnerable to diseases like colorectal cancers.

While experts worldwide continue to search for answers, the US Preventive Services Task Force has lowered the screening recommendations. Instead of waiting until 50 to get your first colonoscopy, we’d like to see you at 45 (assuming you’re of average risk).

If you’d like to learn more about colorectal cancers among young adults and assess your risks, please schedule an appointment with us by contacting one of our offices in Fairfax, Fair Oaks, Alexandria, Gainesville, Woodbridge, or Lansdowne, Virginia.