Obesity Among Millennials
You may have heard recently that colorectal cancer rates are rising among millennials. If you haven’t heard, here is the gist: Millennials (people born in the early 80s – mid 90s) are 2 times as likely to develop colon cancer and 4 times as likely to develop rectal cancer as someone born in 1950. Scientists don’t yet know exactly why this is occurring, but they know that there seems to be a correlation between these incidences and rising obesity rates.
It’s not hard to see why obesity rates have soared over the past few decades. The increase in the availability of fast food and salt- and sugar-laden convenience foods full of chemicals/GMOs/fillers along with the decrease in activity levels are mostly to blame. It’s estimated that over 50% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 49 eat far too much salt, fast food, and sugary drinks, and far too little fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) showed that in the years 2011-2014, nearly 70% of adult Americans (over 20) were overweight, with 36.5% of those being obese. In the last four decades, the percentage of obese Americans has doubled. Other first-world countries (and even some third-world countries) have begun to see an increase in obesity as well, which shows a disturbing trend.
Obesity and Cancer
Several research studies have previously linked obesity to cancer in approximately 40% of cases in the United States, including esophageal, stomach, colorectal, kidney, gallbladder, liver, and pancreatic cancers.
Most cancers are caused by a mix of genetic factors (which you can’t control) and lifestyle choices (which you can control). Obesity is now considered to be one of the most preventable causes of cancer in the US and the United Kingdom, and if obesity continues its current growth curve, it will easily overtake tobacco for the #1 spot.
Ahmedin Jemal of the American Cancer Society was intrigued by the apparent relationship between obesity and colon cancer diagnoses in young adults, so he assembled a group of colleagues and decided to study the data. They gathered cancer data from 25 US states (which happen to contain 67% of America’s population) for the 20-year period between 1995 and 2015.
Their data included 30 types of cancer, with 12 of those cancers previously linked to obesity. Among those 12, 6 types of cancer saw an increase in diagnoses among obese individuals under 50. Of the 18 remaining types of cancer included in the study, 2 showed a similar upward trajectory (meaning there may be links between cancers and obesity that we don’t know about yet). The other 16 cancer rates either declined or remained steady.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology reviewed the conclusions of this report, and they released a statement saying,
“this study should be a wake-up call to all Americans. . . [T]here is an alarming lack of awareness among the American public of the link between obesity and cancer.”
The Millennial Obesity Epidemic
Although the rates of cancer deaths and new cancer incidences have fallen over the past quarter century, there is fear in the medical community that rising levels of obesity will undo all of the progress in reducing cancer mortality rates. New treatments and detection methods coupled with declining tobacco use have made an impact, but those advancements could be completely obliterated by the obesity epidemic.
At this time, it’s impossible to definitively link the recent rise in cancer rates with the increase in obesity over the same time period. However, the correlation is strong enough for it to be considered a probable contributing factor.
Obesity can increase inflammation, which has been known to drive cancer growth and is a risk factor for many chronic disorders (including Type 2 diabetes). Obesity also alters insulin and hormone production, along with immune responses and oxidative stress, all of which allow cancer cells to grow faster. Some processed meats and snacks have independently been linked to cancer as well.
Further studies are needed to assess the full impact of the connection between obesity, cancer, and Millennials. But for now, we know that there IS a link, and we can start taking steps to fight obesity. Contact Digestive Health Center for any questions about the millennial obesity epidemic.