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Expand chart
Data: American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

Millennials are facing a much higher risk of obesity-related cancers than baby boomers did at their age, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health Monday.

Why it matters: The steepest increases for obesity-related cancers were in the youngest age group (aged 25–34 years) and are a warning that steps need to be taken by this generation to get rid of excess body weight. "The change in cancer trends among young adults is often considered as a bellwether for future disease burden," study author Hyuna Sung tells Axios.

Background: While scientists are not sure of the exact mechanism, there is "quite convincing evidence" that excess body weight increases the risks of some cancers, says Sung, principal scientist of surveillance research at the American Cancer Society (ACS).

  • Some theories behind this correlation are that excess body weight can affect inflammation and hormones, or that it's impacting the gut's microbiome.

What they did: Using a population-based cancer registry, researchers from ACS and the National Cancer Institute examined invasive cancers in people aged 25–84 diagnosed between 1995–2014 for 30 cancers, including 12 obesity-related ones.

What they found: Multiple obesity-related cancers increased significantly faster among the young adults (25–49 years) compared to older adults (50–84 years). "Indeed, the younger, the faster," Sung says.

  • 6 of the 12 obesity-related cancers — colorectal, uterine corpus (endometrial), gallbladder, kidney, multiple myeloma and pancreatic — showed increased incidences in young adults and in successively younger birth groups in a stepwise manner.
  • The risk of colorectal, uterine corpus, pancreatic and gallbladder cancers in millennials is about double the rate baby boomers had at the same age, per the report.
  • But, for almost all (16 out of 18) of the non-obesity related cancers (exception was gastric non-cardia cancer and leukemia), cancers dropped or stabilized in successively younger generations — meaning the absolute risk of all cancers is lower for the youngest age groups. This included cancers related to HIV infections or smoking.

Why? Sung says while there are multiple factors involved, the obesity epidemic is happening because...

  • "[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."
  • "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."

What's next: Three main steps need to be taken, Sung says.

  1. People need to adopt healthy lifestyles at younger ages. "Early lifetime exposure matters," she says.
  2. Physicians need to increase obesity screening and counseling. "Less than half of primary care physicians regularly assess for body mass index despite national screening recommendation," Sung says.
  3. Policymakers should broadly implement regulatory interventions like "restrictions on advertising calorie-dense food and drinks, taxes on sugary drinks, [and] urban planning ... to promote physical activity" through more sidewalks and bike lanes, Sung adds.

Go deeper:

Editor’s note: The chart was corrected to show year-on-year percent increase from 1995 to 2014 (not percent increase over the time period).

Go deeper

UN poll: Most see climate change as global emergency amid pandemic

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (C) fronts a Fridays For Future protest at the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm in September. Photo: Jonathan Nacksrtrand/AFP via Getty Images

64% of people from around the world say climate change is a global emergency, a United Nations poll published Wednesday finds.

Why it matters: It's biggest global survey on climate change ever conducted, with some 1.2 million participants from 50 countries — including the U.S. where 65% of those surveyed view climate change as an emergency.

Collins helps contractor before pro-Susan PAC gets donation

Sen. Susan Collins during her reelection campaign. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A PAC backing Sen. Susan Collins in her high-stakes reelection campaign received $150,000 from an entity linked to the wife of a defense contractor whose firm Collins helped land a federal contract, new public records show.

Why it matters: The executive, Martin Kao of Honolulu, leaned heavily on his political connections to boost his business, federal prosecutors say in an ongoing criminal case against him. The donation linked to Kao was veiled until last week.

How cutting GOP corporate cash could backfire

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies pulling back on political donations, particularly to members of Congress who voted against certifying President Biden's election win, could inadvertently push Republicans to embrace their party's rightward fringe.

Why it matters: Scores of corporate PACs have paused, scaled back or entirely abandoned their political giving programs. While designed to distance those companies from events that coincided with this month's deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, research suggests the moves could actually empower the far-right.