CLEVELAND — A cancer diagnosis at any age is a tragedy, but developing the disease at a younger age is an especially awful occurrence. Unfortunately, many cancers that were once prevalent among individuals aged 50 or older are now being detected more and more in younger individuals, especially for those battling weight issues.
New research out of the Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) School of Medicine in Cleveland has found a link between the rising rate of obesity among U.S. adolescents and this spike in cancer cases among young adults.
The research team analyzed evidence from over 100 published studies on 13 different types of cancer in young adults. Of the 20 most common cancers in the United States, nine are now being reported among young adults between the ages of 20 and 44. Their findings point to the American childhood obesity epidemic shifting certain cancers into younger age groups than they typically appeared in before.
According to the data analysis, in 2016, about one in 10 new breast cancer cases and almost one in four new thyroid cancer cases occurred in Americans aged 20 to 44.
Obesity can increase the likelihood of cancer in several ways; excess weight can cause the immune system to work overtime, potentially producing harmful byproducts that can mutate DNA. Additionally, obesity can impact a person’s metabolism, inducing hormone imbalances that help cancer cells develop and thrive.
Researchers believe that childhood obesity can permanently increase an individual’s odds of developing cancer, even if they lose the excess weight later on in life.
“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,” says Dr. Nathan A. Berger, a professor of experimental medicine at CWRU, in a statement. “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.”
Dr. Berger explains that while losing weight can block some cancer pathways, much of the damage will have already been done. “Even if one pathway is successfully blocked, obesity-induced cancer takes another path,” he says.
The study is published in the journal Obesity.