Over the past several decades, the incidence of early-onset cancers, often defined as cancers diagnosed in adults <50 years of age, in the breast, colorectum, endometrium, oesophagus, extrahepatic bile duct, gallbladder, head and neck, kidney, liver, bone marrow, pancreas, prostate, stomach and thyroid has increased in multiple countries. Increased use of screening programmes has contributed to this phenomenon to a certain extent, although a genuine increase in the incidence of early-onset forms of several cancer types also seems to have emerged. Evidence suggests an aetiological role of risk factor exposures in early life and young adulthood. Since the mid-20th century, substantial multigenerational changes in the exposome have occurred (including changes in diet, lifestyle, obesity, environment and the microbiome, all of which might interact with genomic and/or genetic susceptibilities). However, the effects of individual exposures remain largely unknown. To study early-life exposures and their implications for multiple cancer types will require prospective cohort studies with dedicated biobanking and data collection technologies. Raising awareness among both the public and health-care professionals will also be critical. In this Review, we describe changes in the incidence of early-onset cancers globally and suggest measures that are likely to reduce the burden of cancers and other chronic non-communicable diseases.
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