Colon Cancer Rates Continue to Climb in People Under 55

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March 2, 2023 -- New data show that colorectal cancer is increasing among younger people, and that the disease is more frequently being discovered in late stages when it is more difficult to treat.

Meanwhile, cases continue to decline among people age 65 and older – progress that is credited to increased colonoscopy screenings. Between 1995 and 2019, the proportion of new colorectal cancer diagnoses in people under age 55 has increased from 1 in 10 cases to 1 in 5 cases. 

Despite declines in the older population, the rise in younger cases means colorectal cancer remains the third most common cancer in the U.S. and the third leading cause of cancer death.

“We know rates are increasing in young people, but it’s alarming to see how rapidly the whole patient population is shifting younger, despite shrinking numbers in the overall population,” Rebecca Siegel, MPH, report author and senior scientific director at the American Cancer Society, says in a statement. “The trend toward more advanced disease in people of all ages is also surprising and should motivate everyone 45 and older to get screened.”

New projections estimate that 153,020 people will be diagnosed with the illness this year, and 52,550 will die. The findings were published this week in the journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

Researchers also found that Native Americans under age 65 are increasingly likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer. The rate of colorectal cancer in Alaska Natives and American Indians is as much as double the rate as in white people, and the death rate among Native Americans is almost four times as high compared to white people.

Men were 33% more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer compared to women. Researchers said the higher rate was likely due to factors such as “excess body weight, processed meat consumption, and historical smoking.”

Overall, colorectal cancer among people ages 50 to 64 has stabilized, and rates of the illness have increased by 2% per year in people 54 and younger. The death rate is rising steadily by 1% annually in people younger than 50 and by 0.6% in people ages 50 to 54.

“We have to address why the rates in young adults continue to trend in the wrong direction,” says researcher Ahmedin Jemal, DVM, PhD, senior vice president for surveillance and health equity science at the American Cancer Society. “We need to invest more in research to uncover the causes of the rising trends and to discover new treatment for advanced-stage diseases to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with this disease in this young population, who are raising families and supporting other family members.”