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Global rates of early onset cancer have 'dramatically increased', study finds

Early-stage cancer rates are increasing around the world, and experts blame modern Western diets, obesity and poor sleep habits among the youth for the increase.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, collected data on 14 cancers from 44 countries around the world and found that early cases increased almost universally.

The research team speculates that multiple factors are at play. Increased alcohol use, overuse of antibiotics, increasing average height, sedentary lifestyles and higher rates of obesity, devastating smoking rates in the late 1900s and poor sleep habits have all plagued the age group most affected by this increase, and have all been linked to increases in cancer risk.

They say these factors are related to the “Western” diet, in which a person consumes more processed, high-fat, foods and sugary drinks. Many in the west also live sedentary. In America, in particular, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed last week that only 25 percent of the population achieved weekly fitness numbers.

Researchers found that the number of early cancers is increasing worldwide and have linked the increase to many different factors that affect different parts of the world in different ways (file photo)

Researchers found that the number of early cancers is increasing worldwide and have linked the increase to many different factors that affect different parts of the world in different ways (file photo)

“From our data, we observed something called the birth cohort effect. This effect shows that each successive group of people born at a later date (e.g. ten years later) has a higher risk of developing cancer later in life, probably due to risk factors to which they were exposed at a young age,” Dr. Shuji Ogina, said a Brigham professor who took part in the study.

“We found that this risk increases with each generation. For example, people born in 1960 had a higher risk of cancer before they turned 50 than people born in 1950 and we predict that this risk level will continue to rise in successive generations.’

Researchers, who published their findings this week in Naturecollected data from 44 countries from 2000 onwards.

They then found individual studies from each of the included countries that would measure risk factors for different types of cancer. These are, for example, studies showing trends in obesity in the US and other countries.

Cases of early-onset kidney cancer increased most in the US, in both men and women. The rate of early-onset myeloma decreased in men and the rate of early-onset esophageal cancer decreased in women. Almost every other cancer has seen an increase in both sexes.

Closer examination of trends in each of the countries included found that 10 cancer risk factors were more common in this generation than in their previous cohort.

Obesity is one of the biggest factors, with the condition considered a risk factor for many different types of cancer.

‘Of the 14 emerging cancers we examined, eight were related to the digestive system. The food we eat feeds the microorganisms in our gut,” says Dr. Tomotaka Ugai, lead author of the study who works in the Department of Pathology in Brigham.

“Diet has a direct influence on the composition of the microbiome and ultimately these changes can influence disease risk and outcomes.”

The 'western diet' has been a major contributor to obesity and diabetes rates worldwide, two major risk factors for many types of cancer

The 'western diet' has been a major contributor to obesity and diabetes rates worldwide, two major risk factors for many types of cancer

The ‘western diet’ has been a major contributor to obesity and diabetes rates worldwide, two major risk factors for many types of cancer

The researchers found that global obesity rates have skyrocketed in recent decades, jumping from 3.2 percent to 10.8 percent in men and 6.4 percent to 14.9 percent in women from 1975 to 2014.

Obesity is a major problem especially in America, where the CDC reports that more than 40 percent of adults suffer from the condition.

Other factors also played a role in the jump. While alcohol consumption in Western Europe declined, the researchers found that consumption increased in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Drinking has been linked to liver, colorectal, breast cancer, and more.

Overuse of antibiotics that hit the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s also likely plays a role.

Some experts fear that the powerful drugs have damaged the gut microbiome of many users, leaving them vulnerable to cancers along the gastrointestinal tract.

While the number of smokers has declined in the west, the tobacco industry in many Asian countries is beginning to flourish, making lung and oral cancer more common in younger people.

People are bigger now too. While that may be considered relatively positive, taller people are believed to be at an increased risk of developing cancer.

Children now also sleep less than in previous years. This is for several reasons. First, the increase in the use of devices such as cell phones and computers has disrupted nighttime routines in many households. The blue light emitted by these devices is also likely to cause problems.

One of the most notable risk factors the researchers cited was the impact the Western diet has.

The diets are high in saturated fats, processed and red meats and sugary products, while being low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Poor dietary habits contribute to many of the risk factors for cancer, such as obesity and diabetes. Much of the content of processed foods and sugary drinks — especially high fructose corn syrup — has been linked to cancer development.

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