Study Blames Western Diet, Excessive Alcohol Use for Cancer Surge in Young People

Cancer rates among people under the age of 50 have skyrocketed over the past three decades, a new study has found. And the data suggests that risk factors from "westernized" diets—which tend to be high in red meat and sodium, and low in fruits and vegetables—are the culprit, exacerbated by alcohol consumption and tobacco use.

The study, published by BMJ Oncology, found that global cases of early onset cancer in people under the age of 50 increased a whopping 79 percent from 1.82 million in 1990 to 3.26 million in 2019. Likewise, global cancer deaths in rose 27 percent to 1.06 million in 2019.

In the course of their findings, researchers analyzed data from 204 countries and 29 types of cancer, examining incidences of cases, deaths, and disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), which equals one lost year of healthy life, as well as other risk factors.

Though genetic factors played a role in cancer diagnoses, the researchers found that diet and alcohol and tobacco use, along with physical inactivity, excess weight, and high blood sugar were the leading risk factors.

"Changes in diet, lifestyle and environment since the turn of the 20th century, resulting in increased rates of obesity, physical inactivity, westernized diets, and environmental pollution, may have affected the incidence of early-onset cancer," the authors of the study wrote. "Additionally, alcohol, smoking and detrimental pregnancy exposures may have also affected the incidence of early-onset cancer."

Breast cancer had the highest incidence of both cases and deaths, attributing to 13.7 and 3.5 per every 100,000 of the global population. Windpipe, lung, stomach, and bowel cancers were linked to the highest death tolls after breast cancer, with the sharpest spike in deaths among those with kidney or ovarian cancer.

North America, Oceania, and western Europe likewise accounted for the highest rates of early onset cancers in 2019, with low- to middle-income countries in Oceania, eastern Europe and central Asia recording the highest death rates.

And the problem will likely only get worse, unless the global population makes stark lifestyle changes. Based on the data from the past three decades, the projections indicate that the global number of cases and deaths will increase by 31 percent and and 21 percent by 2030, with people in the 40–44 and 45–49 age groups at the highest risk.

"Early-onset cancer morbidity continues to increase worldwide with notable variances in mortality and DALYs between areas, countries, sex and cancer types," the study concluded. "Encouraging a healthy lifestyle could reduce early-onset cancer disease burden."