Bowel cancer rates are soaring in younger people because of poor diets and lack of exercise, according to new research.
A study across Europe found bowel cancer rates increased by six per cent every year between 2008 and 2016 among 20 to 39-year-olds – and the under-30s were most at risk.
Colon tumours, the most common form of the disease that begin in the large bowel, rose by a shocking 7.4 per cent annually.
A similar pattern has been identified in the US as twenty- and thirty-somethings adopt a couch potato lifestyle fuelled by burgers, pizzas and chicken nuggets.
Dr Fanny Vuik, of the Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at the Erasmus University Medical Centre in Holland, said: “The cause for this upward trend is still unknown.
“It may be related to increasingly sedentary lifestyles, obesity and poor diets – all of which are known colorectal cancer risk factors.”
She said it adds to evidence public health authorities should make screening available much earlier than is currently offered.
BBC newsreader George Alagiah, who is receiving treatment for bowel cancer for the second time, is among those who have called for earlier testing.
Colorectal cancer is the medical term for bowel cancer. Three-in-four cases start in the colon and a quarter in the rectum – the back passage.
It’s the fourth most common cancer in the UK and is usually diagnosed in the over 60s.
But data from national cancer registries in the UK and 19 other European countries – including Ireland – highlighted it’s increasing prevalence in the under 40s.
The analysis spanning more than a quarter of a century found colon cancer incidence increased by a more modest 1.5 percent a year from 1990 to 2008 – and then ballooned. Rectal cancer went up by 1.8 percent annually from 1990 to 2016.
Among 40 to 49 year-olds the overall number of colorectal cases ros by 1.4 percent every year from 2005.
Speaking at a United European Gastroenterology conference in Vienna, Austria, Dr Vuik : “We are aware of investigations in the North American population that demonstrates that colorectal cancer is increasing in young adults.
“In Europe, however, information until now has been limited and it’s worrying to see the startling rates at which colorectal cancer is increasing in the young.”
Traditionally considered a disease that affects people over the age of 50 bowel cancer is the second most common form of the disease across Europe.
About 500,000 new cases are diagnosed every year with men more likely to suffer than women.
Studies have found bowel tumours in younger patients are often more aggressive and more likely to be caught at a later stage than in older populations.
Dr Vuik said: “Increased awareness and further research to elucidate causes for this trend are needed and may help to set up screening strategies to prevent and detect these cancers at an early and curable stage.”
Strong evidence supports bowel cancer screening to reduce incidence and mortality rates.
But many of these programmes commence at the ages of 50 and 55. Inequalities in the type of screening offered, as well as participation and detection rates, are currently present throughout the continent.
Dr Vuik added: “The highest increase in incidence was found in adults between 20 to 29 years of age.
“Therefore, identifying those young adults at high risk of colorectal cancer is essential to ensuring early diagnosis and optimal patient outcomes.”
Earlier this year it was announced men and women in England will be offered bowel cancer testing from the age of 50.
A UK National Screening Committee evidence review recommended everyone from 50 to 74 should be sent the home test kits – which detect cancer markers in a small faecal sample.
Mr Alagiah, 62, blamed NHS cuts for his late diagnosis. The move brings England in line with Scotland.
The faecal immunological test (FIT) is simple and highly accurate, marking a big improvement on the previous test which looked for traces of blood rather than cancer markers.
From this autumn the current screening group of 60 to 74-year-olds will have access to the test every two years, lowering the need for unnecessary, invasive follow up tests.
It’s expected to be gradually rolled out to over-55s, followed by over-50s, but no timetable has yet been given.
Bowel cancer kills more than 16,000 people in Britain each year.