Colon Cancer and Type-2 Diabetes Rates Rising Among the Young

Two new studies show a surprising link between colorectal cancer, type-2 diabetes and soda.
Marcia Wendorf

Two recent studies present something very worrying for the U.S.'s children and young adults. First, according to the National Cancer Institute, since the 1990s, the rate of colorectal cancer, which includes cancers of the colon and rectum, has more than doubled among adults younger than 50. And, more young people are dying from the disease.

Starting around 1995, a similar uptick in cases of colorectal cancer was observed in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and some parts of Europe and Asia. Dr. Kimmie Ng of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute explained that, "When the incidence of a disease changes by generation, that suggests the culprit is something in the environment, rather than something biological."

Something in the environment

Past studies have shown that a diet high in processed meat and fat could be a contributing factor to colorectal cancer. When scientists at Washington University in St. Louis looked for a possible causative factor, they found an association between incidences of cancer and the consumption of sugary drinks, such as soda.

While an association doesn't prove cause and effect, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, Nour Makarem, told that, "higher intakes of soda are involved in a higher risk for colorectal cancer. We know that sugar-sweetened beverages have been linked to weight gain, glucose dysregulation, and so on, which are also risk factors. So there’s a plausible mechanism that underlies these relationships."

Between 1977 and 2001, among 19- to 39-year-olds, the consumption of sugary drinks went from 5.1 percent of total calories consumed to 12.3 percent. Among children 18-years-of-age and under, that percentage went from 4.8 percent to 10.3 percent. By 2014, increasing attention to health caused those figures to drop, but around 7 percent of total calories consumed by Americans were still coming from sugary drinks.

In the new study published in the medical journal Gut, scientists looked at data from the famous Nurses' Health Study. Established in 1976, the Nurses' Health Study and Nurses' Health Study II are among the largest investigations into risk factors for major chronic diseases in women.

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The scientists examined the consumption of sugary drinks by 94,464 female registered nurses who were enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study between the years 1991 and 2015. The nurses were all between the ages of 25 and 42-years-old. The scientists also looked at a smaller data set comprised of 41,272 nurses who reported their intake of sugary drinks when they were between the ages of 13 and 18.

Over the course of 24 years, the nurses suffered 109 cases of colorectal cancer, however, the data showed that those who drank two or more eight-ounce servings of sugary drinks per week had more than double the risk for colon cancer compared to their counterparts who drank less than one eight-ounce serving per week.

The scientists also found that each additional eight-ounce serving of sweet drinks increased the risk of colon cancer by 16 percent. The age at which the sugary drinks were consumed was also a factor, with those consuming the drinks during their adolescence having a 32 percent higher risk.

During that time, nurses who switched to non-soda drinks, such as coffee or milk, had a 17 to 36 percent reduction in their risk of developing colorectal cancer.

A "staggering increase"

The study's lead author Yin Cao, an associate professor of surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told that insulin resistance, high cholesterol, and inflammation in the gut could be causative factors in the development of cancer in younger people, but how they lead to it has not been identified.

Cao also cited studies in mice that show that high fructose corn syrup has been found to contribute to cancer risk. High fructose corn syrup was being added to sodas by November 1984, when both Coca-Cola and Pepsi announced publically that they had made the switch from sugar to high fructose corn syrup in their soft drinks.

Another recent study showed what one researcher described as a "staggering increase in cases of type 2 diabetes ... and the increase in severity of presentation" that arose during the Covid pandemic. The study showed that the incidence of type-2 diabetes in children doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic. The average age of onset was 14-years-old.

The study also showed a doubling in the rates of hospitalizations for type 2 diabetes among young people during 2020 when compared with the same time period in 2019. The results were presented at the June 2021 virtual American Diabetes Association (ADA) 81st Scientific Sessions.

Another thing that changed during the pandemic was the proportion of young people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes compared to those diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Before the pandemic, 24 percent of newly diagnosed young people had type 2 diabetes, and 76 percent had type 1 diabetes. During the pandemic, the percentage of those with type 2 diabetes rose to 44 percent.

Looking for an explanation, the researchers cited, "decreased physical activity, more screen time, disturbed sleep, and increased intake of processed foods ..."

One of those processed foods might have been soda.

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