Study reveals almost 80% rise in cancers in people under the age of 50 in last 30 years

Evidence shows cases of cancer in younger people have been rising in many parts of the world since the 1990s
Evidence shows cases of cancer in younger people have been rising in many parts of the world since the 1990s Copyright Canva
By Luke Hurst
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Across the globe, rates of cancer diagnoses in people under the age of 50 have soared over the past three decades.


The risk of getting cancer goes up as we age - but new research shows there has been a 79 per cent increase in the number of people under the age of 50 getting cancer over the past three decades.

Drawing on data from a global perspective, the evidence shows cases of cancer in younger people have been rising in many parts of the world since the 1990s.

The year 2019 saw 1.82 million new cancer diagnoses among the under 50s, which is a 79% increase on the number recorded in 1990.

Publishing their findings in the open access journal BMJ Oncology, researchers estimate the global number of new early onset cancer cases and associated deaths will rise by a further 31 per cent and 21 per cent respectively by 2030, with those in their 40s the most at risk. 

They said that genetic factors are likely playing a part, but diets high in red meat and salt, and low in fruit and milk, as well as alcohol and tobacco use are the main risk factors in many of the most common cancers among people under 50. Lack of exercise, putting on too much weight, and high blood sugar are also contributing factors, according to the data.

“Full understanding of the reasons driving the observed trends remains elusive, although lifestyle factors are likely contributing, and novel areas of research such as antibiotic usage, the gut microbiome, outdoor air pollution and early life exposures are being explored,” said doctors from the Centre for Public Health, Queen's University Belfast, in a linked editorial.

Breast cancer most common ‘early onset’ diagnosis

Breast cancer accounted for the highest number of early onset cases in people under 50 in 2019, with 13.7 out of every 100,000 people in the global population getting a diagnosis, and 3.5 out of 100,000 dying of associated causes.

But cancers of the windpipe and prostate have risen the fastest since 1990, the analysis shows. Those with the heaviest death toll and compromising health the most among younger adults in 2019 were those of the breast, windpipe, lung, bowel, and stomach.

The researchers drew on data from the Global Burden of Disease 2019 Study for 29 cancers in 204 countries and regions.

They looked at the number of new cases, deaths, health consequences, and contributory risk factors for all those aged 14 to 49, to estimate annual percentage change between 1990 and 2019.

More than one million people under 50 died of cancer in 2019, an increase of just under 28 per cent on the 1990 figure. The highest rates of early onset cancers in 2019 were in North America, Australasia, and Western Europe.

The researchers say there are various limitations to their findings, such as the variable quality of cancer registry data in different countries, which may lead to under reporting or under diagnosing.

“Prevention and early detection measures are urgently required, along with identifying optimal treatment strategies for early-onset cancers, which should include a holistic approach addressing the unique supportive care needs of younger patients,” said the Queen's University Belfast doctors.

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