Colon Cancer Death Rates Rise in Younger Adults

Submitted by Dr. Bruce Waldholtz on December 14, 2018

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Colon Cancer and Younger Adults

The recommended screening age for colon cancer is 45*, unless you have a family history of the disease; but that doesn’t mean you should wait until you are middle aged to see a gastroenterologist.

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A study published in the Aug. 8, 2017, Journal of American Medicine, and conducted by the American Cancer Society, had some surprising findings about the age of colon cancer deaths in American adults.

The good news: overall colon cancer rates continue to decline in America.

The disappointing news:  the death rate from colon cancer in young to middle-aged adults (ages 20-54) has risen about one percent per year since 2004. These numbers are surprising because in the previous century these death rates had actually seen a steady drop.

Colon cancer screenings are working

While we do not have an exact answer for why the numbers are fluctuating, we absolutely believe the overall colon cancer rates are falling because screenings, such as the colonoscopy, have become routine. This is the only colon cancer screening test that can detect and remove precancerous polyps at the same time, potentially eliminating abnormal cells before they become cancerous.

Younger adults tend to delay screenings, even when they are experiencing symptoms

When it is detected early, the five year survival for colon cancer is about 90 percent, but regrettably younger adults often postpone seeking care for symptoms. They often mistakenly believe they are not at risk and these delays in care allow cancers to grow beyond a more treatable stage.  

Young or young at heart, the following symptoms are always a reason to see a gastroenterologist or primary care physician:

  • Bleeding
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Other unexplained or unsettling bowel or stomach concerns

Detection and polyp removal, through colonoscopy screening, is the best way to reduce the risk of colon cancer and to detect colon cancer when it is most treatable--this is a proven fact. Educational efforts, like 80% by 2018, have helped to ramp up the efforts to promote screenings, particularly in older adults, but we still need to spread the word about their importance. That’s because this same study also noted that those at screening age (50) were delaying their initial screenings.

Screenings should begin at age 45, or before if you have a first-degree relative with the disease

While symptoms are always a reason to see a physician, regular screenings are for everyone, even if you do not experience stomach or bowel issues. Screenings should begin at age 45, or if you have a first-degree relative who has experienced the disease, they should begin at age 40 or 10 years prior to the age your relative was when his or her cancer was detected—whichever is sooner.

Simple lifestyle changes can help you to avoid colon cancer, as well as many other cancers

The same study found that while colon cancer death rates in black adults decreased since 2004, in white adults ages 20-54 the death rates from colon cancer increased by 1.4 percent per year. While there are no real answers as to why this racial difference exists, it is important for all adults reduce their risk with a few lifestyle changes.

  • Eating a diet high in fiber
  • Exercising regularly
  • Keeping weight at a healthy level
  • Quitting smoking 
  • Reducing alcohol intake

These lifestyle changes are proven to help reduce your overall risk of almost every type of cancer.

Colon cancer is a risk across all genders, ages and races. It is important to speak to your primary care provider about your risk factors, family history and to take note of any unusual symptoms. A simple appointment could save your life.

Dr. Bruce Waldholtz is a gastroenterologist who practices with Gastroenterology Associates and is on the medical staff at Chesapeake Regional Medical Center. He is on the National Board of Directors of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

*This article was updated February 2019 to represent the American Cancer Society's revised colon screening guidelines that lower the recommended screening age from 50 to 45.