A new study released at the beginning of February by a team of doctors and public health officials in The Lancet Public Health journal paints an alarming picture about the future of cancer prevalence among younger populations in the United States. While cancer numbers are generally decreasing across the board, the risk of developing obesity-related cancer is increasing, and increasing more drastically, with each successive generation. With the obesity epidemic skyrocketing the past 40 years—obesity increased by more than 100 percent among children and adolescents between 1980 and 2014—it’s not an overstatement to suggest that future generations are in danger.
A Look at the Numbers
The study analyzed a population-based registry of more than 14 million people between the ages of 25 and 84 who were diagnosed with cancer between 1995 and 2014. Researchers looked at 20 of the most common types of cancer along with 12 cancers related to obesity, measuring changes in frequency of those cancers among specific age groups as time progressed. The results? Not good.
According to the numbers, the incidence of 6 of the 12 obesity-related cancers rose in in each age group. And with each successive generation starting with individuals born in 1950, the incidence continued to increase. By comparison, incidence decreased in 16 of the 18 non-obesity-related cancers. These findings suggest that the risk of developing an obesity-related cancer is increasing with each new generation.
The Obesity Epidemic
The relationship between obesity and certain types of cancers is undeniably strong. According to the study’s 2014 numbers, up to 60 percent of endometrial cancers and 36 percent of gallbladder cancers may be related to obesity. However, it’s important to be clear: We can’t say that obesity causes cancer. There are other ways that overweight or obese individuals may differ than just their body fat, so other factors are at play.
Obesity researchers cite the current physical and social landscape in America, and how it has changed in the past 30 years, as a major reason why each successive generation seems to become more obese, and thus more at risk for obesity-related cancer. “Our current food environment is one in which food is inexpensive, abundant and served in very large portions. Similarly, we have created a physical activity environment with only a rare need for significant energy expenditure for food, shelter, and transportation.” To put it simply, Americans are over eating and under exercising more than ever.
The numbers prove this to be true. Between 2010 and 2012, more than half of American adults reported poor dietary habits (low consumption of fruits and vegetables, and high consumption of sodium and sugar-sweetened beverages). Additionally, 40 to 50 percent of every dollar spent on food is spent on food outside the home (restaurants, sporting events, cafeterias, etc.). This food tends to feature larger portion sizes, more fat and higher calorie counts.
The numbers become even more unsettling when you consider the health habits of our youngest generation. 50 to more than 80 percent of school-aged children consume at least one soda per day, and 25 percent of them report no daily physical activity, instead opting to watch television or play video games. Statistics indicate that 50 percent of 5-year-olds with obesity will be affected by obesity as adults, while 80 percent of obese adolescents can expect to be affected by obesity as adults.
What Can Employers Do?
Although the obesity issue is complex and there is no one-size-all-fits solution, it’s more important than ever for employers to engage with the health of their employees in this area. Not only will it cut costs, it could save lives. Although not an extensive list, employers can:
- Offer incentives—such as gift cards or reduced insurance premiums—for healthy behavior
- Provide healthy snacks—fruit, vegetables, whole grain options, etc.—and reduce snacks containing high levels of sodium and sugar
- Offer discounts or rebates for gym memberships
- Champion office activities such as group walks, sports leagues or team competitions
Employers can also use this as an opportunity to invest in their employees’ families. By making employees aware of just how serious the issue of childhood obesity is, and providing tools to help them address it, employers can help parents set their children up for a lifetime of good health. The CDC provides a great starting framework to help get kids active and eating healthy.