Written by Joanna Button
What’s happening: Newly analyzed data from the past three decades shows a surge in early-onset cancer, defined as cancer diagnosed in people under the age of 50. Young people in industrialized and quickly developing nations are most affected. Some experts say the increase is so significant that it should be classified as an epidemic, though they have no concrete explanations of what’s causing the rise.
The numbers: Data from the University of Washington School of Medicine show that between 1990 and 2019, cancer rates in 25- to 29-year-olds in G20 nations rose by 22 percent, faster than any other age group. Young people in upper-middle-income countries saw the fastest cancer growth rates overall—over 50 percent since 1990.
Potential causes: Experts are increasingly convinced of a link to the nutrition and lifestyle changes that accompany industrialization and economic growth. Sugar, saturated fat, and antibiotics can negatively impact the microbiome (gut bacteria that aids digestion and the immune system), which could help explain the rise in early-onset colorectal cancer (by 70 percent) and other digestive system cancers. A sedentary lifestyle and night-time exposure to light affect circadian rhythms, metabolism, and obesity rates—further potential risk factors.
Watching 2024: Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans seem skeptical of pharmaceutical companies and other health-related industries that profit from customers’ unhealthy lifestyle choices. Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is garnering attention for pointing out government collusion with such industries and the resulting incentive to keep Americans unhealthy. Voter interest in the topic could make it a major debate point in the 2024 presidential election.