Report: Colon and Rectal Cancer Rates Continue to Drop Among Older Americans

But rates vary by age, race, and ethnicity

two men and two women in their 50's and 60's sit on couch and talk

The rate at which people are diagnosed with colon cancer and rectal cancer in the US has dropped 32% from 2000 to 2013 for those aged 50 years and older, according to a new report from the American Cancer Society. Researchers credit the drop in part to more people getting recommended screening tests. Screening is the process of looking for cancer or pre-cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease.

Death rates from colon and rectal cancer have also declined significantly among people 50 and older – dropping 34% between 2000 and 2014. The report says even more deaths could be avoided if everyone got their screening tests on time.

The findings are published in Colorectal Cancer Statistics, 2017 in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians and its companion piece Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2017-2019. The reports, published every 3 years, provide a detailed look at colon and rectal cancer trends and present the latest information on survival, prevention, early detection, treatment, and ongoing research.

Colon and rectal cancer combined is the third most commonly diagnosed can­cer in both men and women in the US. The report estimates that 135,430 people will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 50,260 people will die from it in 2017.  As of January 1, 2016, there were almost 1.5 million colon cancer survivors in the US.

An increase in younger Americans

In a disturbing trend, the rates of new cases and deaths from colon and rectal cancer continue to increase among people younger than age 50. Incidence rates in this age group increased by 22% from 2000 to 2013, and mortality rates increased by 13% during 2000 to 2014. Factors thought to play a role in these increases include rising rates of excess body weight, sedentary lifestyles, and unhealthy diets.

In a separate study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), American Cancer Society scientists looked more closely at the pattern of increasing colon and rectal cancer rates among younger people. They conclude there is a need for increased awareness among the general public and health care providers about the risk factors among young people for colorectal cancer. And they suggest it might be time to consider screening before age 50 for average-risk people.

In response, Otis Brawley, MD, FACP, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, said, “This new data will be examined by our independent guidelines development group to review whether a change in our screening recommendations is warranted, particularly since screening can prevent colorectal cancer, averting substantial morbidity and mortality during the most productive years of life.”

Screening saves lives

Screening has the potential to prevent colon cancer because it can often detect pre-cancerous growths, called polyps, in the colon and rectum. Although most polyps will not turn into cancer, removing them can prevent cancer from occurring. And if colon cancer is present, regular screening increases the chances of finding it earlier, when it’s easier to treat. 

Most people who are diagnosed with colon cancer are older than 50. That’s why the American Cancer Society currently recommends colon cancer screening beginning at age 50 for people at average risk. But some people have certain risk factors that make them more likely to get it at an earlier age. This may mean they should start screening earlier, or get tested more often than other people.

Even though screening saves lives, many people are not up-to-date on screening tests. However, according to the report, the rate of screening is increasing. From 2013 to 2015, screening for colon and rectal cancer increased from 53% to 58% in those ages 50 to 64 and from 65% to 68% in those 65 and older.

If 80% of adults 50 and older were up-to-date on screening by 2018, an estimated 277,000 colon and rectal cancer cases and 203,000 deaths would be averted by 2030.

Racial disparities

In addition to age, rates of colon and rectal cancer vary by race and ethnicity. Rates are highest in non-Hispanic blacks and lowest in Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders. The higher rates among non-Hispanic blacks are thought to be largely due to a higher proportion of low socioeconomic status among the population.

Low socioeconomic status is linked with a higher likelihood of some risk factors that can lead to colorectal cancer, including obesity, unhealthy diet, smoking, and lower rates of screening.  

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Colorectal Cancer Statistics, 2017. Published March 1, 2017 in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. First author: Rebecca Siegel, MPH, American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Ga.

Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2017-2017. Published March 1, 2017. American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Ga.

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