Gen X cancer rate set to surpass those of Baby Boomers

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While cancer deaths have steadily declined over the past 30 years, cancer rates have been on the rise—especially, a new study has found, for members of Generation X.

By the time they turn 60, Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980), are projected to see a cancer rate higher than that of Baby Boomers—and any prior generation born between 1964 and 1908, for that matter. 

The only exception was with Gen X Asian or Pacific Islander males, whose rates of cancer are projected to go down, per the report. 

The findings were published this week in the JAMA Network Open and come out of the National Cancer Institute. The cohort study was led by senior investigator Philip Rosenberg, PhD, who used what’s called an age period cohort model to make the predictions, analyzing data of 3.8 million people (Asian or Pacific Islander, Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black, and non-Hispanic White) with cancer through the institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program. 

Rosenberg tells Fortune that for him, understanding how cancer rates vary from one generation to the next is a research passion. “It’s kind of understanding history in a way,” he says. 

And these results, he admits, took him by surprise.  

“Going in, I was anticipating that I may see colon or rectal cancer rates in particular to be as high or higher than the Boomers, and that’s because there’s just so much of these studies coming out about early onset colorectal cancer cases,” he says. “But what kind of took me more by surprise was the number of different cancer types that our models project will occur in Generation X compared to Baby Boomers.”

Gen X women, the research found, will see significant increases over Baby Boomer women of the following cancers: thyroid, kidney, rectal, corpus uterine, colon, and pancreatic, plus non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia. Gen X men, meanwhile, will see increases in thyroid, kidney, rectal, colon, and prostate cancers and leukemia. 

Lung and cervical cancer incidence is on track to decrease among Gen X women, while lung, liver, and gallbladder cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma incidence will decrease among Gen X men. Breast cancer rates will stay about the same, although Rosenberg and his team are currently looking into breast cancer rates in greater detail. 

The study noted that, “Numerous preventable causes of cancer have been identified. Cancer control initiatives have led to substantial declines in tobacco consumption. Screening is well accepted for precancerous lesions of the colon, rectum, cervix, uterus, and breast.” But despite all of that, “other suspected carcinogenic exposures are increasing.”

Among those, the study points out, are PFAS (“forever chemicals”), processed food, and “rising obesity rates and increasingly sedentary lifestyles.” 

Another possibility for the rise in cancer rates, the study posits, is that changes in cancer registry policies as well as the rise of medical imaging technology in making diagnoses have led to more cancer cases being counted. 

Rosenberg explains that the primary purpose of a study like this is to “provide clues for other researchers to follow, so when you see the unexpected, that’s where to look to see cancer causes and novel means of prevention.” But a useful takeaway for the public, he says, is to focus on the many recommendations that are out there when it comes to reducing the risk of cancer. 

“Spending some time thinking about those recommendations would be a great exercise for all of us—really saying, ‘Am I doing everything I can?’” That would include eating healthy and staying active, following evidence based advice for specific screenings, “obviously not smoking,” and drinking in moderation. “There’s a lot of advice that people can take to heart,” he says.

The disparity in healthcare, though, is having a worrisome impact on certain groups. As the study pointed out: “The Black-to-White cancer mortality gap narrowed following passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. However, income inequality, underinsurance, food swamps and deserts, deficits in the built environment, and other factors make it difficult for everyone to eat healthy and stay active. Taken together, these findings indicate that for many people in the US, a healthy lifestyle remains, to various degrees, an unattainable privilege rather than a fundamental right.”

The researchers had too few data points to produce estimates for Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996). “Our results beg the question of what the cancer experience may be like among the 72 million Millennials … when they enter their 40s, 50s, and 60s,” the study concluded. “On current trajectories, cancer incidence could remain high for decades.”

It’s why Rosenberg tells Fortune, “I don’t think you have to be a Gen Xer to be concerned” about what’s going on in the world today with all of these issues that may be impacting not only our health, but the future of our children.”

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