Killer T Cells Surround a Cancer Cell

Obesity-Related Cancer Rising in Millennials

Most often, when public health reports discuss the impact of rising obesity, the focus is on diabetes and its complications. Cancer does not spring to mind. But a new report in Lancet Public Health provides a disturbing jolt. Six obesity related cancers are rising, especially in the millennial generation.

These are cancers that have always tended to emerge later in life. So this might be an ominous sign of what’s to come.

Increasing with Younger Birth Cohorts

For the past several decades, overall cancer mortality has been dropping. For the most part, this trend is all about the benefits of not smoking, along with better detection and early treatment. It’s a noteworthy success for public health and cancer care.

But a number of cancers have strong links to obesity. And in this new data, Hyuna Sung and colleagues examined the rates of the 20 most common cancers and 12 cancers linked to obesity. They compared changes in incidence rates over time between birth cohorts. And among the 12 obesity-related cancers, they found six of them were becoming more common: multiple myeloma, colorectal, uterine corpus, gallbladder, kidney, and pancreatic cancer. This rise was steepest for younger generations.

In contrast, all but two of the other common cancers (unrelated to obesity) were either stable or dropping.

Risking a Reversal?

The researchers are blunt about the implications:

The future burden of obesity-related cancers in the USA might be exacerbated as younger cohorts age, potentially halting or reversing the progress achieved in reducing cancer mortality over the past several decades.

A year ago, in Obesity, Nathan Berger warned of this emerging threat. In a narrative review, he concluded that the obesity pandemic could lead to the trends that Sung et al are now documenting:

The possibility exists that overweight and obesity may be contributing to the appearance of specific malignancies at younger ages. This prospect, in association with the worldwide expansion of obesity, suggests an impending explosive increase in obesity‐associated cancers in young adults.

The implications of pandemic obesity are becoming ever more clear. They make it imperative to move beyond moralistic reliance on ineffective strategies for dealing with it. It’s well past time for improving the access to obesity care and developing obesity prevention strategies that will actually work.

Click here for the study by Sung et al and here for a commentary published with it. For further perspective, click here and here.

Killer T Cells Surround a Cancer Cell, photograph © NIH Image Gallery / flickr

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February 5, 2019

4 Responses to “Obesity-Related Cancer Rising in Millennials”

  1. February 06, 2019 at 8:05 am, Traci Malone said:

    I find it interesting, and problematic, that the researchers didn’t look at the difference in the incidence of cancer between higher and lower body weight. They only looked at different age groups. Isn’t it possible that some of the people developing cancer were of lower body weight?

    • February 06, 2019 at 8:31 am, Ted said:

      The relationship between obesity and these six cancers is documented in other research. One study will never answer all questions. Good research answers a few questions and raises many more. Also worth noting, Traci, is that liver cancer is rising and it’s associated with NAFLD and obesity. But the investigators explain that the rise they’re seeing is more related to HCV infection.

  2. February 06, 2019 at 10:11 am, Traci Malone said:

    Thank you for the reply. A relationship between obesity and cancer does not prove causation. There are many other potential influencers on increased cancer, such as alcohol use patterns, environmental exposures, living conditions, chronic stress, chronic dieting (I’m thinking specifically the impact on the gallbladder here), or avoiding medical care to avoid weight bias and stigma….many other potential contributors. Yet, once again, the finger gets pointed at body weight being the most important influencer on cancer. This is an example of how the message gets seen by the public-
    These scare tactics only create more fear, dieting, shame, and ultimately, poorer health. How about we focus cancer prevention discussions on health behaviors such as smoking, alcohol use, sun protections, fruit/vegetable/whole grain/processed meat consumption, activity, medical screenings, etc…..

    • February 06, 2019 at 10:25 am, Ted said:

      I agree with you about problematic scare tactics, Traci.

      I don’t like scare tactics from folks who try to catastrophize obesity. I don’t like it from folks who misrepresent the risks and benefits of obesity care. But this is an intensely personal subject and strong feelings are inevitable. People are entitled to their own feelings and opinions, but not alternative facts.