In the European Union (EU) and Great Britain, death rates from colorectal cancer among 25 to 49 year olds are increasing – contrary to the general downward trend. One reason is the higher proportion of overweight young people, explains a research team led by Carlo La Vecchia from the University of Milan in the journal “Annals of Oncology”. Other factors include increased alcohol consumption and reduced physical activity.

Colon cancer at a younger age is usually more aggressive and the chances of survival are lower than in older people, as the researchers explain. It should be considered to extend colon cancer screening to younger people, starting at the age of 45. In Germany, women aged 55 and over and men aged 50 and over can have a colonoscopy if they have statutory health insurance.

Thousands of people die in Germany every year

Colon cancer usually arises from growths in the intestinal wall. These can be removed during a colonoscopy before they potentially develop into colon cancer. According to the German Cancer Research Center, around 55,000 people develop colon cancer every year and more than 20,000 die.

According to the research team’s forecast for 2024, the death rate from colon cancer will increase particularly sharply in the age group of 25 to 49 years compared to the period 2015 to 2019 in Great Britain: by 26 percent in men and almost 39 percent in women of the age group. Also in Italy (plus 1.5 percent for men and 2.6 percent for women), among Spanish and Polish men (plus 5.5 and 5.9 percent respectively) and among 25- to 49-year-old women in Germany (plus 7.2 percent) there will be an increase. The absolute numbers for young people are still comparatively low.

Generally decreasing death rates

The increase rates among young people are worrying, says La Vecchia – especially because the diagnosis and treatment of colon cancer have improved. Calculated across all age groups, the death rate from colon cancer is falling, taking into account the age structure of the population: in Germany, compared to 2019, it fell by 11.55 percent for men and by 7.99 percent for women.

The age-standardized death rates for stomach cancer (17.92 percent), lung cancer (17.53 percent), bladder cancer (15.88 percent) and leukemia (11.65 percent) are falling even more sharply for men in Germany. There is no positive trend for prostate cancer. According to the calculation, the death rates for women in Germany are decreasing for leukemia (18.52 percent), stomach cancer (16.71 percent), breast cancer (10.77 percent) and ovarian cancer (10.75 percent). The rate of bladder cancer, however, increases by 1.22 percent.

According to La Vecchia’s team, age-standardized death rates for cancer are also continuing to fall across the EU: averaged across all types of cancer taken into account, they fell by 6.5 percent for men from 132 to 123 per 100,000 inhabitants compared to 2018, and by 4.3 percent for women 82.5 to 79 per 100,000 inhabitants. With the age-standardized rate, the age distribution of the population is taken into account as a factor in the calculation.

1.27 million deaths in the EU

However, the actual number of cancer deaths is increasing due to the increasing number of older people: for men in the EU from around 675,000 in 2018 to over 705,000 in 2024 and for women from around 535,000 to over 566,000. According to the forecast, around 1.27 million people in the EU will die of cancer this year. La Vecchia believes that more political measures are needed to promote physical activity and reduce alcohol consumption, among other things.

The data used by the study authors comes from the World Health Organization (WHO). They considered information from 1970 to the most recent data available (between 2017 and 2021). This is the 14th year in a row that the team has published such forecasts.