Exact age doctor says bowel cancer screenings should be lowered to as cases rise

By Staff 10 Min Read

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, affecting around one in 15 men and one in 18 women. It is also the third most common cancer diagnosis worldwide

The age at which bowel cancer screenings should begin needs to be lowered, says a doctor as cases rise.

This is an issue for both men and women in the UK where it’s the fourth most common cancer. It also ranks third globally in terms of cancer diagnoses. Currently, people in England get invited for their first screening when they are 54, and then every two years. While this age was dropped from 60 to 54 back in November 2023 given the upsetting increase in younger people being diagnosed, doctors feel the age needs to be further reduced, and quickly.

In under 50s, the numbers of cases are growing quicker than any other age group. Gut specialist Dr Aliasdair Scott, who works at Selph, thinks that the age should go down to 40. He believes that one of the main causes of low survival rates in the UK is how late the screenings begin compared to other countries, reports Bristol Live.

Talking about how people find out they have bowel cancer, Dr Scott says: “There are two ways you can be diagnosed with bowel cancer. You might develop symptoms, such as a change in bowel habit, stomach pain, weight loss or blood in your stool. Alternatively, you might have no symptoms but be diagnosed with bowel cancer by screening.”

He concludes that it is unsurprising that those diagnosed through screenings are more likely to have caught the disease early on and are three times more likely to survive. In England, normally you’ll get your first invite for a screening once you turn 54. Scientists say they have developed a simple DNA test that can identify 18 early-stage cancers with “high accuracy”.

“Compare this to the United States where you’re invited from 45 or Japan where you’re invited from 40. He added: “Although most people diagnosed with bowel cancer are over 50 years old, the rates of new bowel cancer diagnoses are going up fastest in the under 50s. What’s more, the US, Japan and many other countries screen people for bowel cancer every year. In the UK, we only screen every other year. In the US, 45% of bowel cancers are picked up by screening, compared to just 10% here.”

Lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet and exercise play a large part in the development of bowel cancer. So much so that more than half of bowel cancer cases are thought to be caused by lifestyle factors and are therefore considered preventable. To help Brits lower their risk of developing bowel cancer, Dr Alasdair shares his top five tips to help prevent picking it up earlier on in life.

1. Exercise more

“There’s very good evidence that exercise can cut your risk of developing bowel cancer by about 20 per cent. Importantly, the beneficial effect of exercise holds true even for people with a family history of bowel cancer.

“The more you exercise, the lower your risk. If you follow the current recommended physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity and two resistance training sessions per week, you can expect to lower your bowel cancer risk by about 10 per cent.”

2. Drink less alcohol, and eat more whole grain, fibre and dairy

“What you eat and drink ends up in your bowel so it’s probably not surprising that your diet has an impact on your risk of bowel cancer. The increasing incidence of bowel cancer in the under 50s is thought to be partly driven by higher alcohol and sugary-drink consumption amongst people born after 1960.

“We have strong evidence that an alcoholic drink a day will increase your risk of bowel cancer by around seven per cent. There are lots of reasons to stop drinking sugar-sweetened beverages. One of them is because they increase your risk of bowel cancer. Women who drank two or more sugary drinks a day had twice the risk of developing bowel cancer before the age of 50 compared to women who drank fewer than one a week.

“Whole grains, fibre and dairy products have the strongest evidence for preventing bowel cancer. Data suggests that eating around 90g of whole grains (e.g. wheat, barley and rye) per day is associated with a 15% reduction in bowel cancer risk. The consumption of dairy products is strongly associated with a reduction in bowel cancer risk. Around 400g of dairy (including milk) a day can be expected to reduce bowel cancer risk by about 13%. This is likely to be due to its high calcium content which has a protective effect.”

3. If you smoke, stop

“Do you need another reason to stop smoking? Smoking increases both your risk of developing bowel cancer and dying from bowel cancer. Sadly, in terms of absolute numbers of people affected, smoking is the largest preventable cause of bowel cancer.”

4. Maintain a healthy weight

“Being overweight or obese is an independent risk factor for developing bowel cancer. This means that carrying too much weight itself, and not simply reduced exercise or poor diet, is directly linked to developing bowel cancer. This is likely to be because excess fat causes inflammation which is one of the drivers of cancer.

“The relationship between excess weight and bowel cancer affects men and women but is particularly strong in men. However, obesity in women is also strongly associated with endometrial and breast cancer so it’s equally important to avoid it in both sexes.”

5. Know your family history, know your risk

“You can’t change your genes, but being forewarned is forearmed as the saying goes. So find out your family cancer history. This is relevant not only to bowel cancer but also to breast and prostate cancer amongst others. It’s particularly important to know about any first degree relative who had bowel cancer and their age at diagnosis. The younger they were (particularly if under 50) the more likely that their genes had a part to play.

“If you do have a family history of bowel cancer it’s worth discussing this with your GP. Depending on your history, you may be eligible for earlier bowel cancer screening in the UK. Even if you’re not eligible for earlier screening, it may still be valuable to arrange for a screening test yourself.”

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