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April 08, 2024

Young adults are aging faster, and that may help explain their rising cancer risk

Cancer rates for more than a dozen forms, including colorectal, are increasing among people under 50.

Illness Cancer
Cancer Accelerated Aging Olga Kononenko/Unsplash

Accelerated biological aging is more common in young people today, and it may be linked with the development of early-onset cancers, according to new research.

Younger generations are aging more quickly, and that may be a factor in the rising cancer rates among young adults, a new study suggests.

Biological age – the condition of a person's body and physiological processes – differs from chronological age, which measures the number of years a person has been alive. The study found that accelerated biological aging has become more common in younger generations, and may be linked to the development of early-onset cancers – those diagnosed in adults younger than 55.

"Unlike chronological age, biological age may be influenced by factors such as diet, physical activity, mental health and environmental stressors," Ruiyi Tian, the Washington University School of Medicine graduate student who led the research, said in a news release. "Accumulating evidence suggests that the younger generations may be aging more swiftly than anticipated, likely due to earlier exposure to various risk factors and environmental insults. However, the impact of accelerated aging on early-onset cancer development remains unclear."

Researchers calculated the biological ages of nearly 150,000 people by using biomarkers found in their blood samples. They found that people born in 1965 or later were 17% more likely to experience accelerated aging – when your biological age is higher than your chronological age – than those born between 1950 and 1954. 

Accelerated age was linked to a 42% increased risk of early-onset lung cancer, a 22% increased risk of early-onset gastrointestinal and a 36% increased risk of early-onset uterine cancer. People with accelerated aging also were 16% more likely to develop late-onset gastrointestinal cancer and 23% more likely to develop late-onset uterine cancer. 

Though the study didn't examine why these cancer types were linked to accelerated aging, Tian told CNN that the lungs may be more vulnerable to aging than other types of tissues because of their limited ability to regenerate. Additionally, stomach and intestinal cancers have been linked to inflammation, which increases with aging, she said.

The research comes as health experts are worried about rising rates of early-onset cancer. Advancing age is generally the top risk for cancer. A recent study estimated that, by 2030, the number of early-onset cancer diagnoses could increase by 31% worldwide, and the number of people who die from these cancers could rise by 21%.

Worldwide, cancer rates for more than a dozen forms are increasing among people under 50. In the U.S., colorectal cancer has become the leading cause of cancer death among men under 50. It's second among young women. 

The authors of the latest study seek to uncover why accelerated aging and early-onset cancers happen in hopes of developing prevention and early-detection strategies. Numerous studies have identified chronic psychological stress as one possible risk factor for accelerated aging.

"If validated, our findings suggest that interventions to slow biological aging could be a new avenue for cancer prevention, and screening efforts tailored to younger individuals with signs of accelerated aging could help detect cancers early," Tian said.

The study relied on data from the U.K. Biobank database and was presented at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting on Sunday. The findings in studies presented at medical conferences should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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