Caution over study suggesting under-50 cancer surge

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The number of cancer cases among the under-50s around the world appears to have risen sharply in the past 30 years, a study suggests.

Research published in BMJ Oncology found there had been 3.26 million cases in 2019 – 79% more than in 1990.

But experts cautioned against reading too much into the findings.

The research did not take into account a 40% rise in the total population, while factors such as better reporting may also have played a role.

The team, of experts from around the world, including the US, China and the UK, agreed no firm conclusions could be drawn.

But they were concerned lifestyle factors – including excess weight, diets high in red meat and salt and physical inactivity – could be pushing cancer cases up among 14- to 49-year-olds.

Genetic factors could also be playing a role, they added.

Death rate

Cancers of the digestive system, skin and breast were the most common.

Cancer killed more than a million under-50s in 2019, a rise of over 25% – but with the 40% population rise, this could actually indicate a falling death rate.

The data was taken from the Global Burden of Disease dataset, which covers more than 200 countries.

The researchers said more work was needed for a “full understanding” of the rise in cases but it suggested efforts were needed to improve detection and prevention in younger adults.

Prof Dorothy Bennett, a cell-biology expert at the University of London, agreed it was “not possible” to draw detailed conclusions.

Cancer Research UK said there was some evidence of rising cancer rates among 18- to 49-year-olds in the UK.

But Dr Claire Knight, of CRUK, added: “However alarming this might seem, cancer is primarily a disease of older age, with the majority of new cancer cases worldwide being diagnosed in those aged 50 and above.”

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