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Colon cancer rates are on the rise and sugary drinks may be to blame, a recent study suggests.

According to the study published in the journal Gut, women who drank two or more sugar-sweetened drinks per day had twice the risk of developing colon cancer before the age of 50, compared to women who consumed one or fewer sugary drinks per week. The beverages in question include soda, fruity drinks or sports and energy drinks.

Dr. Doratha Byrd, Cancer Epidemiology Program

Dr. Doratha Byrd, Cancer Epidemiology Program

“Consumption of sugary drinks has increased among kids, adolescents and adults,” said Dr. Doratha Byrd, an assistant member in Moffitt Cancer Center’s Cancer Epidemiology Program. “These increases could, at least in part, explain some of the increases in development of colorectal cancer that we’re seeing among younger people.”

The study included more than 95,000 registered nurses between 1991 and 2015. The nurses were ages 25-42 when the study began and provided information on their diet every four years for nearly 25 years. During the study period, 109 women developed colon cancer before turning 50.

Having a higher intake of these drinks in adulthood was associated with a higher risk of the disease, even after researchers considered other risk factors like family history. The risk was even greater for women who reported drinking soda and other sugary drinks as teenagers.

“The biology underlying the associations of these beverages with colorectal cancer seems convincing,” said Byrd. “Frequent consumption of these beverages might increase inflammation and affect insulin response and many other biological processes, as well.”

The study found that each daily serving in adults was associated with a 16% higher risk of colon cancer, but during ages 13-18, each drink was linked to a 32% increased risk. Switching sugar-sweetened drinks with artificially sweetened beverages, coffee or milk showed a 17% to 36% lower risk of developing colon cancer before age 50.

“My general philosophy for reducing colorectal cancer risk through diet is to emphasize balance,” said Byrd. “Limit sweetened beverages, red and processed meat, and processed foods high in trans and saturated fats and increase intake of fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts and legumes.”

The results of this study were published shortly after the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that people of average risk start colorectal cancer screenings at 45 instead of 50. The move aligns with guidelines issued by the American Cancer Society in 2018 and highlights growing concerns around an increase in colorectal cancer cases among young people.

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death, and nearly 53,000 people will die of the disease this year. The data show that for Americans ages 45 to 49, there are about 7,000 new colorectal cancer cases per year and about 1,800 deaths. This group accounts for about half of colorectal cancer diagnoses occurring under the previous recommended age of 50.

The task force says these new screening guidelines could save thousands of lives.