According to the National Cancer Institute, "advancing age is the most important risk factor for cancer." But in an alarming new study published in BMJ Oncology, researchers found that early-onset cancers — those that occur before the age of 50 — are on the rise.
Over the three studied decades between 1990 and 2019, occurrences of early-onset cancer rose by nearly 80%, and related deaths rose by more than 27%. The study examined 29 different cancer types and included populations from 204 countries around the world.
The danger of certain types of cancers seems to loom larger than others, according to the research: In 2019, early-onset breast cancer showed both the highest overall increase in incident and the highest mortality rate, for example.
But other types — including tracheal, lung, stomach and colorectal cancers — are also on the rise, with early-onset nasopharyngeal cancer and prostate cancer showing the fastest increasing morbidity rate worldwide. (Occurrences of early-onset liver cancer, on the other hand, fell by about 2.88% per year.)
Further, the study showed that North America holds the unfortunate title for highest increase in early-onset cancer for the year 2019 — though the problem is global. Researchers also expect this trend to continue: Projections put the worldwide occurrence of early-onset cancers and related deaths another 31% and 21% higher by 2030, respectively.
A healthier lifestyle can reduce your risk of cancer — and healthcare costs
While more research will be necessary to fully understand all the causes behind this worrying trend, the researchers were able to point to a few definitive — and unsurprising — risk factors: poor dietary habits, alcohol consumption and the use of tobacco.
The study’s writers call these "the main risk factors underlying early-onset cancers," and they’re all well known as risk-increasing factors for cancer occurrence at any age.
Cancer remains the second most common cause of death in the United States behind heart disease, according to the CDC. And along with being deadly, cancer is also costly: Even stage-zero breast cancer costs more than $60,000 on average to treat, a figure that rises to more than $134,000 by the time the disease reaches stage four.
All of which is to say, adopting a healthier lifestyle might not only extend your lifespan — but also keep more money in your pocket.
Along with the cost of treatment itself, the costs of products like health and life insurance can increase when you smoke, drink to excess or have a higher BMI. (After all, insurance companies’ profits depend on earning more than they spend on claims, which is why they assess the risk factors of each customer before writing a policy.)
If you already have a cancer diagnosis, shopping around for the best health insurance policy can help you access the care you need at the lowest possible out-of-pocket cost. If you qualify for Medicare, your average annual treatment cost might be between about $4,000 to $10,000, as opposed to the much higher averages without insurance.
For those hoping to hedge their bets against cancer, early-onset or otherwise, there are no guarantees — but lifestyle changes can help.
Improving your dietary habits by getting more fiber, exercising more frequently, quitting smoking or cutting back on alcohol can all reduce (though not eliminate) your risk of cancer. Plus, you might also save money on medical and other healthcare-related costs, increasing your wealth and your health in one fell swoop.