A study published online Jan. 25 reveals colon cancer rates are increasing among individuals under the age of 50.
"Colon cancer has traditionally been thought of as a disease of the elderly," said Dr. Samantha Hendren, the study's lead author and an associate professor of surgery at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, reports Philly.com.
"This study is really a wake-up call to the medical community that a relatively large number of colon cancers are occurring in people under 50," she added.
The reason is largely unknown.
"It is unexplained," Dr. Andrew Chan, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said. “It's not simply a change in diagnoses; it's a very real increase. There may be an effect of our environment that could be contributing to the increase."
Of those currently battling colon cancer, one in seven is under the age of 50, the study found. These younger people are more likely to be diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer.
"Part of the reason for this is that these young patients are often diagnosed only after their cancers start to cause symptoms, such as anemia, bowel bleeding or a blockage in the colon," Hendren said.
Colon-cancer screenings are recommended for those over age 50, so younger people are less likely to discover the disease in its early stages.
Moreover, it is common for those with early-stage colon cancer to exhibit no symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Screening guidelines may be altered to reflect the increasing rates among young people.
While those with family histories should get screened, Hendren and Chan don’t think all younger people should be required to -- at least not yet.
"This would be a big and costly change, and I don't know whether it would help more people than it would hurt, so a lot of research would be required to understand this before any changes should be made," Hendren said.
Chan added that while colon cancer is on the rise for those under 50, the risk for them is still low.
Individuals can decrease the likelihood of getting the cancer by eating healthfully and exercising regularly.