The Surprising Reason Millennials Are at Greater Cancer Risk Than Baby Boomers

The risk of certain cancers has doubled for people aged 18-49.

We have yet to find a cure for cancer, but there's no debating that we've made a lot of progress in cancer research over the last few decades. While studies showing that smoking is a major cause of cancer started cropping up as early as the 1950s, it's only recently that the campaign to end this deadly habit began in earnest. There's also a growing body of evidence that eating large quantities of red or processed meat can increase your risk of cancer, leading many people to adopt a plant-based diet.

But while we know so much more about what causes cancer now than we did sixty years ago, a disturbing new study published in The Lancet Public Health claims Millennials actually face a greater risk of cancer than Baby Boomers did at their age. And the reason behind it has to do with another growing concern in the medical community: the obesity epidemic.

Recent studies show that the average American is now technically obese, and that both men and women gained more than 24 pounds between 1960 and 2002. This is a major issue, given that obesity has been linked to a variety of diseases, including cancer.

To better assess the current situation, researchers from the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute analyzed the data of people aged 25 to 84 who were diagnosed with cancer between 1995 and 2014, examining the 30 most common types of cancer, twelve of which were related to obesity. Worryingly, what they found was there was a significant spike in half of the obesity-related cancers among the  young adults (25–49 years) compared to older adults (50–84 years). The overall risk of cancer is still lower for this age group, especially when it comes to the type of cancer caused by HIV or smoking. But the risk for obesity-related cancer—such as colorectal, uterine corpus (endometrial), gallbladder, kidney, multiple myeloma, and pancreatic—was twice as high as it was for Baby Boomers when they were that age.

In more bad news, scientists are still struggling to determine why the prevalence of obesity in America has doubled in the last 40 years, and why it seems to be spreading to children. Hyuna Sung, the principal scientist of the Surveillance and Health Services Research Program at the American Cancer Society and lead author of the study, believes that it's largely due to our current lifestyle habits.

"[The] food environment we are living in promotes over-consumption of energy-dense, high sugar/nutrient-poor foods that are pervasive and much more affordable and available to all," Sung told "Furthermore, physical activity has been 'engineered' out of [our] lifestyle due to energy saving technologies, such as via the use of cars instead of bicycles."

Indeed, there's plenty of research to indicate that young people today spend a lot more time sitting than previous generations, seamlessly transitioning from sitting at the office to sitting in a car to sitting at home on the couch while watching TV. And, according to Harvard Medical School, while "the portion size and caloric density of the average American diet [has] changed for the better," studies show that we eat a lot more than we used to, and that, over the last 30 years, "the average number of meals and snacks rose from 3.8 a day to 4.9 a day."

To combat this increasing epidemic, Sung says that it's crucial to make sure kids adopt good lifestyle habits as early as possible—which means eating healthy and playing outside instead of mindlessly eating junk food while on their iPhones. She also believes both physicians and policy makers need to sound the alarm more.

"Less than half of primary care physicians regularly assess for body mass index despite national screening recommendation," she said, adding that we need regulations that will place "restrictions on advertising calorie-dense food and drinks, taxes on sugary drinks, [and] urban planning …to promote physical activity."

Weight may be a sensitive topic in today's day and age, but people need to know that a sedentary lifestyle and excess weight can have serious consequences in both the short and long term. For more on this, check out some of the other major health benefits of putting down your phone and taking a stroll outside.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more