Teenage obesity increases risk for 17 different cancers in adulthood

GOTHENBURG, Sweden — Researchers have discovered a dangerous link between obesity in male teenagers and over a dozen forms of cancer. A team from the University of Gothenburg reveals young adults who are overweight when they’re 18 years-old have a significantly higher risk of developing 17 different types of cancer later in life. The research also sheds light on the potential impact of the ongoing youth obesity epidemic on the cancer landscape over the next three decades.

Earlier this year, researchers presented findings indicating a higher cancer risk in men with lower aerobic fitness levels during compulsory conscription for military service at age 18. This risk was independent of whether these men were overweight or obese at the time.

In two new studies, the same research team has delved deeper into the issue, focusing on body mass index (BMI) as a factor, while still considering the participants’ aerobic fitness levels. The results revealed that having a higher BMI at age 18 is associated with an even greater risk of developing various cancers later in life, surpassing the impact of poor fitness at the same age.

A High BMI and 17 Different Cancers

The study identified a correlation between high BMI at conscription and a heightened risk of 17 different types of cancer, including:

For several of these cancer types, the risk was elevated even within the usual range of normal weight (BMI of 18.5-24.9). For instance, cancers of the head and neck, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, and kidney, as well as malignant melanoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, showed increased risks even at a BMI of 20-22.4.

The study suggests that the current definition of normal weight may be more suitable for older adults, whereas maintaining an optimal weight during young adulthood might require staying within a lower BMI range.

Overweight or obese man upset, sad, depressed
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Prostate Cancer’s Unique Pattern

One cancer type, prostate cancer, exhibited a different pattern. It was found to be more common among men who were not overweight or obese at the time of enlistment. This divergence might be due to men of normal weight seeking medical care for prostate issues earlier, leading to more timely diagnoses.

Abdominal Cancers and Higher Risk

The association between high BMI and cancer risk was particularly pronounced for abdominal cancers, such as those affecting the esophagus, stomach, and kidney. Obese men at conscription faced a three to four times higher risk of these cancers. The study estimated that unhealthy weight might account for 15-25 percent of such cancer cases in Sweden today.

Researchers predict a significant increase in cancer cases linked to youth overweight and obesity over the next 30 years. Based on the current prevalence of overweight and obesity among 18-year-old men in Sweden, this increase could be substantial. For instance, the proportion of stomach cancer cases attributable to high BMI may rise to 32 percent, and for esophageal cancer, it could reach 37 percent.

A Call to Address Obesity in Youth

“Overweight and obesity at a young age seems to increase the risk of developing cancer, and we see links between unhealthy weight and cancer in almost every organ,” says study first author Aron Onerup, postdoc at Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, in a university release. “Given the alarming trend of obesity in childhood and adolescence, this study reinforces the need to deploy strong resources to reverse this trend.”

The study also examined mortality rates among men diagnosed with cancer in this group. It revealed that men who were overweight or obese at diagnosis were two to three times more likely to die within five years of being diagnosed with certain cancers, underscoring the critical importance of addressing weight-related health concerns in early adulthood.

The studies are published in the journals Obesity and Cancer Medicine.

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