Obesity Linked to Increased Cancer Risk Among Young Adults

Obesity Linked to Increased Cancer Risk Among Young Adults

Cancer rates are rising among young adults. And the reason seems to be linked to the increase in obesity.

That’s the finding of an analysis of more than 100 publications conducted by Nathan A. Berger, M.D., professor of medicine, biochemistry, oncology and genetics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. According to Dr. Berger’s review, childhood obesity may have lasting effects that could lead to cancer early and late in life.

The study found that young people with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 and higher are more likely to experience aggressive malignancies. Obesity has shifted with increasing frequency cancers typically associated with older adults over 50 to young adults. For example, one study of more than 1.1 million Israeli men tracked over time found that those who were overweight in adolescence (age 16 to 19) had a 1.5-fold increased risk of developing colon cancer by age 48. Multiple myeloma is now reported in young adults under 45, while historically the peak incidence age held steady at 69.

And of the 20 most common cancers in the United States, nine are now reported in young adults. In 2016, nearly 1 in 10 new breast cancer cases and 1 in 4 new thyroid cancer cases were diagnosed in young people aged 20 to 44.

“If you are obese, you are at a higher risk of cancer. If you lose weight, it improves the prognosis and may lower your risk, but it never goes away completely,” he says.

Dr. Berger’s review shows that obesity accelerates cancer progression in several ways:

  • It over-activates the immune system to produce harmful by-products like growth factor and hormone imbalances that help cancer cells thrive;
  • In the gut, obesity changes bacteria naturally found in the intestine so that tumor-promoting species dominate;
  • Acid reflux in obese individuals damages their swallowing tubes and heightens risk of esophageal cancer.

Dr. Berger’s research confirms obesity promotes cancer by multiple simultaneous pathways. “Even if one pathway is successfully blocked, obesity-induced cancer takes another path,” he says.

Dr. Berger says obesity can also shorten cancer timelines, in part by shrinking the period between benign and malignant cancer progression. This is likely another reason aggressive cancer rates are rising among young adults.

So, what can be done?

Berger hopes that increased use of electronic medical records will help build databases that can detect weight loss patterns over a person’s lifetime. “By documenting characteristics like diet and environment of an obese person, we might be able to get an indication of a possible [cancer] prognosis,” Dr. Berger says. He also advocates for early cancer screening techniques tailored to young people.

But, Dr. Berger says, “the most effective way to curtail development of this problem is to prevent the expansion of the obesity pandemic in both children and adults.”

I couldn’t agree more. Though adults cannot change their youthful body size, they can directly influence whether their children will follow in their footsteps and develop obesity as a youngster/preteen/teen/young adult. By promoting healthy lifestyle habits early, parents have the ability to reduce the risk of their children one day getting cancer.

Without this step, 110 million children and adolescents with obesity worldwide remain at risk of developing obesity-associated cancers.

(Lillie D. Shockney, R.N., B.S., M.A.S.)

SOURCES:
Obesity, March 23, 2018
Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine (http://www.case.edu/medicine)