Childhood Obesity and Cancer in Young Adults
As the youth of America have started spending less time outdoors and more time sitting in front of televisions, video games, or on cell phones, it’s no surprise that childhood obesity rates have been on the rise for many years. And maybe because so many of the other kids they see are similarly overweight, a lot of parents are in denial that their children are too heavy. But it is important to acknowledge this reality as soon as possible. We already know that obesity contributes to many health issues, and now you can add another one. New research indicates that childhood obesity is linked to developing cancer at an earlier age.
The study, which took place at the Case Western Reserve University Center for Science, Health, and Society in Cleveland, Ohio, found that a number of types of cancer that are associated with obesity are on the rise in younger age groups of adults, strongly suggesting that excess weight is related to this increase.1 This outcome is based on an extensive analysis of more than 100 earlier investigations over the past 40 years.
Poring over this data, the researchers were able to determine that, of the 20 most common forms of cancer in the United States, nine of them are increasing among men and women between the ages of 20 and 44. These diseases had formerly been mainly seen in people over the age of 50. Since obesity has already been established in all of these cancers as a risk factor, it seems fairly clear that the bodily changes that result from excessive weight may be acting as a sort of accelerant, perhaps promoting an earlier onset of the disease.
The cancers for which this link was seen between ages 20 to 44 are:
- Thyroid cancer, with 23.9 percent of new cases in those ages
- Meningioma, cancer of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, with 16.8 percent
- Ovarian cancer, with 10.6 percent
- Breast cancer, with 10.5 percent
- Kidney cancer, with 7.8 percent
- Endometrial cancer, with 7.3 percent
- Gastric cardia cancer, affecting the uppermost portion of the stomach, with 6.2 percent
- Colorectal cancer, with 5.8 percent
- Liver cancer, with 2.5 percent
While the study was not designed to prove cause and effect, it certainly outlines an association between obesity during childhood and a rising risk of developing cancer as a young adult. Obviously, that does not mean that all children with a high body-mass index will be destined to be diagnosed with cancer in their twenties or thirties, but they appear to have a greater likelihood of that happening compared to their peers who are thin.
After all, obesity is associated with chronic systemic inflammation, which increases the risk of a number of conditions. Plus, insulin levels and production of sex hormones are altered, creating imbalances that can wreak havoc throughout the body. What’s more, there is evidence that epigenetic changes may occur in the genes of an overweight child.
Epigenetics involves modifications in the ability of genes to express their traits—to turn traits on or off as it were. (To gain a more an in-depth understanding, read Jon Barron’s Everything You Need to Know about Epigenetics.) And what this means is that even if the excess weight is eventually lost, we do not know if the changes that occurred at the genetic level are more long lasting and therefore increase future risk anyway.
Ultimately, if your kids are overweight, it is imperative you do everything you can to help them shed these extra pounds. Everyone in your family can benefit from making healthy lifestyle changes, overweight or not. Revamp your supermarket shopping habits to choose nutritious, fresh foods rather than anything processed or loaded with unhealthy fats or packed with high-glycemic carbohydrates, including most forms of sugar and refined grains. Stop buying junk food and offer fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks. Your children might protest mightily at first, but if you stick to your guns, they will eventually accept it.
And make sure family time includes some physical activity. Even if it’s just a quick 20-minute walk after dinner, anything you do to get everyone exercising daily will be beneficial. The fact that your kids’ future health may be on the line should serve as a great motivational factor.
- 1. Berger, Nathan A. "Young Adult Cancer: Influence of the Obesity Pandemic." Obesity. 23 March 2018. Accessed 31 March 2018. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.22137.