Watch Your Weight in Your 20s to Decrease Cancer Risk
You may not have been an athletic kid, and that’s fine. Playing sports after school is not for everyone. But if you instead spent your time sitting on a couch with friends watching television or battling it out in video games, you might have put on pounds over time. While being a little overweight may not seem like a huge deal to you in young adulthood, your best course of action is to make the effort to shed your excess weight now. Not only does it become harder to do as you age, but there are major health benefits involved. In fact, new research suggests that being overweight in your 20s sets you up for a higher cancer risk over time.
The study, which was conducted at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, found that people overweight in their 20s are at greater risk of developing esophageal and stomach cancer as they age, particularly if they continue to gain.1 And it wasn’t a minor difference, either. The results indicate that those carrying excess pounds as young adults face a 60 to 80 percent higher chance of being diagnosed with one of these conditions than their peers who sustain a normal weight through the years.
Let’s face it, gaining weight is common as we get older—for everyone, not just those of us who started off heavier. But in this case, the subjects who were overweight at younger ages had a much greater likelihood of developing these specific cancers. Any of the participants, no matter where they started off weight-wise, who put on more than 40 pounds by the time they hit 50 years old, were shown to double their risk of esophageal cancer and increase their risk of stomach cancer to a lesser extent. But the participants who were already overweight at 20 years old and had become obese by the age of 50 faced at least triple the risk of both esophageal and stomach cancer.
While the study was not designed to prove cause and effect, it did demonstrate a link between the added weight and these forms of cancer. And it makes sense that being overweight or obese might contribute to the risk of numerous types of cancers, but in particular those of the stomach and esophagus. After all, excess weight is associated with acid reflux, in which the sphincter between the stomach and esophagus relaxes and allows acids to move back up the digestive tract into the esophagus. This causes a burning sensation (not to mention actual burning of the esophagus), sore throat, and coughing. Over time, this can permanently damage the cells of the esophagus and even contribute to the development of cancer.
In addition, we know that being overweight affects hormone levels. Too great an imbalance of estrogen over testosterone—which can occur in both men and women—can cause the body to produce an overabundance of insulin, impacting not only the likelihood of developing diabetes, but cancer as well. It’s also linked to systemic inflammation, which may increase the risk of cancer. This is not the first research to conclude that there is an association between being overweight in youth and developing cancer later on in life, either. A 2013 study at Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva, Israel also showed that heavy adolescents have an increased risk of esophageal cancer when they get older.2
Even though both esophageal and stomach cancers are relatively rare, making up just one percent and under two percent respectively of all new cases of cancer, they are often deadly forms of the disease. The five-year survival rate for esophageal cancer is dismal at just 18 percent, and it’s not much better for stomach cancer at approximately 30 percent.
Ultimately, the takeaway from all of this is to make it a priority to reach and maintain a healthy weight—and especially while you’re young. If you or your children are already overweight, it’s essential to change eating habits—not for a short-term diet, but to achieve long-term results. That means exercising daily too, at whatever level you are capable. And if you’re at a normal weight, work at remaining there.
Now, for those of you who are already adults, the past is the past. If you were heavy in your 20’s, there’s nothing you can do about that now. But keep in mind that for most adults, there’s an average weight gain of approximately a pound per year, which adds up to 10 pounds every decade, and you may not even realize it since it packs on gradually. This is not necessarily “normal,” but it certainly is typical. Therefore, even the naturally thin can end up heavy by middle age, and that will increase your chances of a diagnosis of esophageal and stomach cancers, as well as many other diseases regardless of whether you were thin or not when you were younger. So, make some necessary lifestyle changes and stick to them to raise your odds of a long and healthy future. And if you’re in your 20’s, or your children are in their 20’s, start making those changes ASAP.
- 1. Petrick, Jessica L.; et al. "Body weight trajectories and risk of oesophageal and gastric cardia adenocarcinomas: a pooled analysis of NIH-AARP and PLCO Studies." British Journal of Cancer. 28 March 2017. Accessed 29 March 2017. http://www.nature.com/bjc/journal/v116/n7/full/bjc201729a.html.
- 2. Levi, Zohar; et al. "Body mass index and socioeconomic status measured in adolescence, country of origin, and the incidence of gastroesophageal adenocarcinoma in a cohort of 1 million men." Cancer. 15 October 2013. Accessed 30 March 2017. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cncr.28241/abstract.