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Rising cancer rates in young adults linked to accelerated aging

The alarming increase in cancer diagnoses among young, healthy adults remains a puzzling medical mystery. Over the last two decades, there has been a 30 percent increase in cancer cases in people under the age of 50, with high-profile patients like Princess Kate Middleton, aged 42, bringing visibility to this issue. 

Remarkably, Australia leads globally in the rate of early-onset cancer diagnoses, with a staggering 135 cases per 100,000 individuals, closely followed by New Zealand’s rate of 119 cases per 100,000 people.

Accelerated biological aging 

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) may have uncovered a potential explanation for this troubling trend. Their investigation suggests that individuals born after 1965, currently aged 59 or younger, exhibit signs of being biologically older than their actual chronological age. 

This concept of accelerated biological aging points to a degradation in cellular function, affecting their ability to repair and reproduce, which in turn could increase susceptibility to a variety of cancers, including those affecting the lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and uterus.

Increased risk of solid tumor cancers 

This research utilized data from nearly 150,000 participants in the UK Biobank, employing nine blood-based markers to assess biological age through the PhenoAge algorithm. 

The study’s findings indicate that individuals with accelerated aging were at a 17 percent increased risk of developing solid tumor cancers.

Younger generations and accelerated aging 

“Unlike chronological age, biological age may be influenced by factors such as diet, physical activity, mental health, and environmental stressors. Accumulating evidence suggests that the younger generations may be aging more swiftly than anticipated, likely due to earlier exposure to various risk factors and environmental insults,” said lead author Ruiyi Tian, a PhD student at WUSTL.

The implications of this research are profound, suggesting the feasibility of using a blood test and algorithm to identify those at greater risk for cancer due to accelerated aging, potentially revolutionizing screening recommendations.

“We’re seeing more and more cancers, especially GI cancers and breast cancers, in younger individuals. And if we had a way of identifying who’s at higher risk for those, then really, you can imagine we’d be recommending screening at a different time,” said Anna Blaes, who studies the effect of biological aging in cancer survivors at the University of Minnesota

What is causing accelerated aging?

Experts believe that this accelerated aging may stem from a range of modern stressors, including unhealthy diets, sedentary lifestyles, and poor mental health.

This perspective sheds new light on the rising incidence of cancer among the younger population, particularly noted in the significant increase in colon cancer diagnoses in the US since 1999.

Unhealthy diets and colon cancer 

A related study highlighted an association between aggressive forms of colon cancer and elevated levels of specific gut bacteria linked to diets high in processed foods and sugars. This discovery suggests a new avenue for early detection of at-risk individuals based on gut microbiome analysis.

Cases of colon cancer have significantly risen, with a 50 percent increase in diagnoses among adults under 50 years old in the United States since 1999. Moreover, deaths caused by this type of cancer among young people are also expected to double by 2030. 

In the study, researchers tested stool samples from 94 colon cancer patients. Twenty-four of these patients’ tumors had a KRAS mutation, which makes the cancer more aggressive. This finding can provide new insights into the genetic factors that might contribute to the severity of the disease.

Urgent need to understand the risk factors

Personal stories, such as that of Evan White, a 24-year-old from Dallas who lost his life to colon cancer, and Marisa Maddoz, a 29-year-old paralegal from Delaware who said that cancer treatment rendered her unable to have another child, highlight the human impact of this trend. 

Additionally, Princess Kate Middleton’s recent disclosure of her cancer diagnosis has spurred a wave of support and encouraged other survivors to share their experiences.

The findings underscore  the urgent need to understand the factors behind the increase in cancer among younger adults and highlight the importance of preventive strategies and early detection in addressing this emerging public health challenge.

The study was presented at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2024.


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