Why More Young People Are Getting Colorectal Cancer

A recent study found that millennials aren't immune to the side effects of poor diet and lifestyle habits.


More millennials are getting colorectal cancer, and the diagnoses are rising steadily. The rates of colon cancer in American adults in their 20s and 30s increased by at least 1 percent and as much as 2.4 percent every single year from the mid-1980s to 2013, according to a recent Journal of the National Cancer Institute study. While that number may not seem like a lot, the increase year after year is alarming.

Colorectal cancer, which can form in either the colon (colon cancer) or rectum (rectal cancer), is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer among both men and women in the U.S. with roughly 135,000 new cases each year, according to the American Cancer Society. It's generally associated with older people and screening isn't recommended until age 50, but the study found that almost one-third of rectal cancer patients are under age 55.

In fact, the research showed that when looking at rectal cancer specifically, cases in the 20–29 age group increased by 3.2 percent every year, an even higher rate than the increase in colon cancer. Researchers still aren't clear exactly what to attribute this steady increase to, but they suggest that a rise in obesity could be a factor. Lack of insurance or access to affordable health care and screenings may also play a role.

While genetics play a role in your individual risk factor, there are steps you can take to help safeguard yourself from colorectal cancer at any age. The American Institue for Cancer Research (AICR) suggests that tens of thousands of cases can be prevented by following some simple healthy lifestyle habits. "By making a few changes in what you eat and drink, and getting at least 30 minutes of activity in every day, you have the power to significantly lower your risk of developing colorectal cancer," says Alice Bender, M.S., R.D.N., AICR's head of nutrition programs, in a press release.

Stay Active

Since colorectal cancer has been linked to excess belly fat, staying at a healthy weight can lower your risk. Eating healthy and exercising are key. (Let these trainers' weight-loss tips inspire you.) Make it a goal to be more active, whether that means signing up for a new workout class or simply taking the stairs at work. (These stylish activity trackers can help you monitor your progress.)

Eat Healthy Foods

For every 10 grams of fiber you eat, you decrease your risk of colorectal cancer by 10 percent, according to the press release. Snack on beans and veggies or try these healthy recipes featuring high-fiber foods. Garlic may also lower your risk of colorectal cancer. Bender suggests chopping garlic, then waiting 10 to 15 minutes before cooking in order to reap all its health benefits.

Indulge Mindfully

The merits of red meat are controversial (see: Is Red Meat *Really* Bad for You?), but Bender said that eating too much of it and regularly, as well as processed meats such as hot dogs, can up your colorectal cancer risk. If you can't imagine giving up red meat altogether, Bender suggests limiting your intake to five to six servings a week and avoiding processed meat altogether. She also suggests limiting alcohol intake, since drinking may be connected to an increased risk of colorectal cancer in women.

The takeaway: You have yet another reason to be mindful of what you put in your mouth and how you choose to sweat it out.

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