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Some cancers increasing for younger adults

A pair of feet stand on a white bathroom scale.

March 8, 2019—Several types of cancer that are linked to obesity have increased sharply among young adults, a new study in The Lancet Public Health journal suggests.

The study used data from cancer records that cover nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population. In all, 30 types of cancer were included in the study. Of these, 12 are linked to obesity.

Study authors found that for half of the obesity-linked cancers they looked at, the number of new cases each year rose most rapidly for adults between the ages of 25 and 49. This was true for cancers of the colon and rectum, uterus, gallbladder, kidney, and pancreas, as well as for one type of bone marrow cancer (multiple myeloma).

To be clear, the findings don't mean that most of these cancers now occur in younger adults. Overall, older adults are still the most likely to get these diseases. But the findings do suggest that something potentially important is going on: Compared to their older peers, the risk of being diagnosed with many obesity-related cancers is trending upward for young adults at a faster pace.

But why is that?

The sharp rise in the incidence of some cancers could have to do with America's 40-year obesity epidemic, the study's authors noted. Obesity rates have more than doubled since the mid-1980s. We're now at a point where excess body fat is one of the most preventable cancer causes.

If the trend among young people continues? It could start to undo a lot of the progress in the fight against cancer that has been made, the study authors warned.

How might obesity contribute to cancer?

For one thing, some eating habits that cause us to gain weight may increase the risk of cancer (such as diets high in calories and low in nutritious fruits, veggies and whole grains). Obesity also may cause some changes in the body that promote cancer. For instance, it may boost levels of certain hormones and inflammation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

Watch your weight

The study findings emphasize how important it is to keep a healthy weight. Checking your body mass index (BMI) is one way to find out where you stand. It's based on your height and your weight. Your doctor can also check your BMI for you at your regular checkups.

To test your knowledge of this serious condition, take our quick obesity quiz.

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