6 Facts About Colorectal Cancer and Aging
Among cancers that affect both women and men, colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Colorectal cancer is an umbrella term that includes colon cancer, which starts in the colon, and rectal cancer, which starts in the rectum.
One in 20 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and it's estimated by the CDC and the American Cancer Society (ACS) that upward of 50,000 people die of the disease every year.
But a diagnosis is hardly a death sentence. Colorectal cancer remains one of the most highly treatable forms of cancer. Some 90 percent of people who have an early diagnosis live at least five more years. More than 1.5 million colorectal cancer survivors are living in the U.S. today.
And while it's well known that colorectal cancer is strongly associated with aging, here are a few details you may not know.
1. Colorectal cancer isn't just a disease for older people.
Age isn't the only factor when it comes to colon or rectal cancer. The rates of colorectal cancer for people younger than 50 are rising sharply.
The overall death rates from colorectal cancer have declined by 50 percent in recent decades, according to the American Cancer Society. However, since 1994, there's been a 51 percent increase in people under 50 being diagnosed with the disease. New cases in women and men under 55 have increased by 2 percent per year since the 1990s.
2. Young people often don't recognize their symptoms.
The Colorectal Cancer Alliance published a 2018 report finding that 67 percent of young-onset patients saw at least two doctors and sometimes more than four doctors before being correctly diagnosed, leading to 71 percent of them being diagnosed with stage 3 or stage 4 cancer. Further, more than 63 percent waited from three to 12 months before seeing a doctor because they didn't recognize their symptoms.
See a doctor immediately if you notice:
- Rectal bleeding
- Blood in your stool or very dark stool
- Abdominal cramping
- Changes in bowel movements
3. You should probably get screened regardless of your age.
Because rates are rising so dramatically in younger people, the ACS has lowered the recommended age to begin screening for colorectal cancer from 50 to 45. However, different medical organizations have different age recommendations. For example, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for people between the ages of 50 and 75.
Also, get screened if any of these risk factors apply to you:
- Family history of colorectal cancer
- Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
- Adenomatous polyps
4. The colons of African Americans and people of European descent may age differently.
A new study from the University of Virginia indicates that the right side of the colon in African Americans ages faster than in people of European descent, making them more likely to develop cancerous lesions and suffer colorectal cancer at a younger age.
The ACS says that African Americans are 20 percent more likely to get colorectal cancer and 40 percent more likely to die from it.
5. Colorectal cancer is more aggressive in younger people, but they have a better prognosis overall.
Studies show that once a younger person develops colorectal cancer, it moves more swiftly and aggressively than in older people.
However, chances of survival for younger people with the disease are better than for older people, likely due to fewer comorbidities, such as obesity, lack of exercise or a diet that's high in red meat, that are more common among the older cohort.
6. Higher rates of colorectal cancer are not only age-related—geography is also a factor.
Recent studies show that in addition to genetic and lifestyle factors, geography and environment may play a larger role in colorectal cancer, especially for younger people.
A 2019 study showed that rates among people under 50 are rising most quickly in 10 states, six of which are in the West. The news was surprising because obesity rates and other negative lifestyle factors are less common there. Researchers suggest environmental factors that are not yet understood may be at play.
While colorectal cancer remains a serious concern for older people, those younger than 50 may be at a higher risk than ever before. Make smart lifestyle choices, and if you fall into any of the risk categories or you're older than 45, speak with your doctor about getting screened.