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February 22, 2017 | 3 minute read

Young Overweight Adults May Face Higher Risk of Stomach, Esophageal Cancers

A large new study finds that 20 year olds who are overweight and become obese later in life have approximately three times higher risk of developing esophageal and stomach cancers, compared to those at a healthy weight.

Being overweight at age 20 also links to a higher risk of developing either cancer type decades later when compared to heathy weight participants.

The study was published in the British Journal of Cancer. It adds to the comprehensive body of research on excess body fat and cancer, suggesting that excess weight gain as young adults can play a role in these cancers decades later.

“This is an important new study,” says Susan Higginbotham, PhD, RD, AICR’s Vice President of Research. “From our research, we already know that being overweight or obese increases the risk for many types of cancer, including cancers of the esophagus and the upper stomach.

“This finding that weight gain during adulthood increases risk of both of these cancers highlights the value of weight management programs and focusing on staying a healthy weight throughout life.”

AICR research shows that a third of US esophageal cancer cases could be prevented by staying a healthy weight and not drinking alcohol. The most common type of esophageal cancer, adenocarcinoma, is the type linked to excess body fat. Incidence of adenocarcinoma of the esophagus has been increasing in the United States and other Western countries in recent years.

For stomach cancer (cancers of the upper stomach, or cardia), AICR research estimates 15 percent of US cases could be prevented by staying a healthy weight.

Obesity and Increased Cancer Risk
AICR research shows that obesity increases risk of 11 cancers. If all were at a healthy weight, AICR estimates that there almost 133,000 US cancer cases coud be prevented.

In the new paper, researchers pooled data from two major studies that included more than 400,000 individuals. Participants had given their height and weight when they entered the study, and then again when they were 20 and 50 years of age. They were then tracked to see if they developed a cancer.

Compared with individuals with a healthy BMI at all times, having a BMI classified as overweight or obese at age 20 linked to a 76 percent and 62 percent increased risk of esophageal and stomach cancer, respectively.

Those who were overweight at age 20 and became obese by age 50 had approximately three times higher increased risk of esophageal and upper stomach cancers compared to those categorized as a healthy weight.

Those who gained 44 pounds during adulthood were also twice as likely to develop esophageal cancer.

“Our recommendation for cancer prevention is to stay a healthy weight, but this study also shows there’s benefit to avoiding more weight gain, even if you are not at your ideal weight,” said Alice Bender, MS, RDN, Head of AICR Nutrition Programs. “Focus on eating healthy, and work to build activity into each day, that will reduce your risk of so many cancers, along with other chronic diseases.”

For more on the latest AICR reports on stomach and esophageal cancers, visit the Continuous Update Project section.


Jessica L Petrick et al. Body weight trajectories and risk of oesophageal and gastric cardia adenocarcinomas: a pooled analysis of NIH-AARP and PLCO Studies. British Journal of Cancer advance online publication 14 February 2017.

AICR/WCRF. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Esophageal Cancer. 2016.

AICR/WCRF. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Stomach Cancer. 2016

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