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Why cancer cases among the young are soaring in the UK thanks to junk food and lifestyle changes

The i 20/09/2022 Tom Bawden
The rapid increase in ultra-processed, or junk, food is thought to be the primary reason for the rise in early onset case (Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire) © Provided by The i The rapid increase in ultra-processed, or junk, food is thought to be the primary reason for the rise in early onset case (Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire)

The UK is in the grip of an ‘early-onset cancer epidemic’ as cases of breast, colon, kidney, liver and eight other cancers shoot up among 20 to 49 year old’s around the world, a new study finds.

And the rise in early onset cancer could be just “the tip of the iceberg” for sharply increased rates of many chronic diseases in younger people, as changes in diet and lifestyle take their toll on people’s health, the researchers behind the study warn.

The rapid increase in ultra-processed, or junk, food is thought to be the primary reason for the rise in early onset cases, which began rising dramatically around 1990, researchers have found.

These foods, such as crisps, chicken nuggets and low quality ready-made meals, contain little, if any, unadulterated food and in the UK they now make up just over half of the average diet, according to other studies.

Eight of the 14 cancers that have shown a rapid rise are linked to digestive issues – suggesting that diet and gut bacteria, an emerging field of study, play a key role in their development, according to the study, which looked at 44 countries around the world, including the UK.

Rising obesity, sleep deprivation, sedentary lifestyles, rising antibiotic use and greater consumption of sugary drinks are also thought to be factors that have sharply increased since the 1950s and are likely to have contributed to early onset cancer cases – although it is still unclear exactly what lies behind the sudden increase and why cases started to increase sharply around three decades ago.

“We are very concerned by these findings,” lead researcher Dr Tomotaka Ugai, of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told i.

“All of us should be aware of the rise of early-onset cancers and make more of an effort to prevent them. Improving the early-life environment – for example for foods and lifestyle habits – will not only help prevent cancer, it will have many other health benefits as well.

“We believe that this ‘early-onset cancer epidemic’ may be the tip of the iceberg of the rise of many chronic diseases in young generations now and in the future.”

Rising levels of obesity in younger people, in particular, have caused concerns among health experts because they increase the risk of a whole range of health problems from depression to diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Professor Shuji Ogino, also of Harvard and Brigham, added: “From our data, we observed something called the ‘birth cohort effect’.

“This effect shows that each successive group of people born at a later time – for example, a decade-later – have a higher risk of developing cancer later in life, likely due to risk factors they were exposed to at a young age.

“We found that this risk is increasing with each generation. For instance, people born in 1960 experienced higher cancer risk before they turn 50 than people born in 1950 and we predict that this risk level will continue to climb in successive generations.”

There is no one figure showing how early onset cancer cases have shot up since 1990 but there is plenty of illustrative data, Dr Ugai says.

“It is difficult to capture the trend of many cancer types by one number because the trend differs by cancer types and countries. For example, in England and Wales, early-onset colorectal cancer incidence has increased by on average 2.8 per cent in women and 2.5 per cent in men annually from 2002 to 2012. You can imagine how much increase it is if there is an annual inflation of 2.5 per cent for decades,” he said.

For the decade from 2002 to 2012, the increase for colorectal, or colon, cancer amounts to an increase of close to a third for women aged 20 to 49 and well over a quarter for men.

Over the same period, in England and Wales, early onset kidney cases have risen by about a third for men and women while liver cancer cases in women are up about 50 per cent (compared to about 20 per cent for men).

Cases of prostate cancer – in men – meanwhile, have more than doubled during that decade, according to the study.

Dr Ugai said: “The increase in early-onset cancer incidence has been observed since 1990 in many developed countries with high consumption of ultra-processed foods that started to rise in the mid 20th century.

“And as ultra-processed foods and other western-style diets and lifestyle have recently become more and more common in low and middle income countries, they will likely face a similar increase in early-onset cancer incidence decades later than high-income countries,” he said.

“The early-onset cancer epidemic is due to the foods, environment, lifestyle habits that we received as children and what we have given and will continue to give to our children. Cancer risks of our children and future generations depend on us.”

The study found significant increases in early onset cancer for 14 cancers: of the breast, kidney, liver, pancreas, prostate, thyroid, pancreas, head and neck, colon, uterus, bone marrow, gallbladder, oesophagus and extrahepatic bile duct – small tubes that carry bile from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine.

Of those, eight are related to digestive issues: cancer of the colon, oesophagus, extrahepatic bile duct, gallbladder, head and neck, liver, pancreas and stomach.

Dr Ugai said his findings provide further evidence of the importance of our gut bacteria to our health.

“The food we eat feeds the microorganisms in our gut. Diet directly affects microbiome composition and eventually these changes can influence disease risk and outcomes.

“Among the 14 early-onset cancer types with rising incidence, eight relate to the digestive system, indicating the potential pathogenic importance of both diets and the oral and intestinal microbiome. However, more research is needed to elucidate the role of our microbiomes on our health.”

Asked which change in the past three decades is likely to have played the biggest role in soaring rates of early onset cancer, Dr Ugai said:

“It is difficult to say which risk factor has had the biggest impact. We are almost certain that many factors have contributed to this phenomenon. The consumption of ultra-processed foods started to increase in mid to late 20th century, along with many other possible risk factors such as red meat intake, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, alcohol, antibiotics use, sleep pattern changes and air and water pollutions,” he said.

The study is published in the journal Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology.

Dr Tomotaka Ugai’s tips for avoiding early onset cancer

Avoid western-style diets rich in highly processed foods, animal fat, desserts, and excessive red meat

Avoid sugar

Do regular exercise

Avoid smoke / smoking

Avoid alcohol

Take well-balanced nutritious foods and drinks

Keep good oral hygiene

Take good sleep with regular schedule (avoid bright light at night)

Decrease night shift jobs as much as possible (just sleep at night)

Start all of the above habits earlier. The earlier the better. As early as you are in uterus or just born, meaning cancer risks of your babies and children depend on you.

Get available vaccines for cancer-causing microorganisms such as HPV and HBV

It found that the early life “exposome”, which encompasses a person’s diet, lifestyle, weight, environmental exposures, and microbiome, has changed substantially in the last several decades.

Previous publications showed an increase in some of specific early-onset cancer types such as colon cancer.

Other publications showed an increase in early-onset cancers, but they examined different age groups.

This study is the first to analyse incidence of 14 cancer types among 20-49 year-old adults in 44 countries over a prolonged period.

Dr Michael Jones, a senior researcher in genetics and epidemiology at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, who is not involved in the study, said: “Early onset cancer is of concern. As we tackle later onset cancer – for example by reducing lung cancer by smoking cessation programmes, or finding breast cancer at an earlier stage because of screening – the early onset cancer becomes a relatively more important issue.

“But while the issue should be taken seriously, because resources are not unlimited, it must be balanced against later onset cancer, and other health related issues,” he said.

Health information manager at Cancer Research UK, Alice Davies, who also wasn’t involved in the study, said: “Over the decades there have been increases in cases of some cancer types in people younger than 50.

“It’s not fully clear what’s driving these, but studies like this one highlight that it’s not likely to be just one reason. Exposure to risk factors in earlier life, better detection of cancer and genetics might all play a part.

“We need more research to examine the causes of early onset cancer for specific types, but it’s important to remember that the vast majority of cancer cases are diagnosed in people over 50.”

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