For the study, Siegel and her colleagues collected data on more than 490,000 USA men and women aged 20 and older who were diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer between 1974 and 2013. Colon cancer is the third most diagnosed cancer in men and women in the USA, according to the American Cancer Society, and screenings like colonoscopies are part of the reason why so many cases can be diagnosed - often when the cancer is still treatable.
Furthermore, "trends in young people are a bellwether for the future disease burden", Siegel said.
For rectal cancer, the changes in the rates were more pronounced, the study said.
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Although overall rates of colon cancer started decreasing in 1974, in the mid-1980s the rates started rising 1 percent to 2 percent a year among people aged 20 to 39, the researchers found.
While cases of colorectal cancer are declining in older adults, a dramatic surge in cases is occurring among Millennials and Generation Xers. But the data are compelling, particularly with the increased incidence of rectal cancer. The scientists behind the study hope that by increasing awareness, the recommended age will be reconsidered. They also advise people to avoid eating a diet that's dominated by processed meats, which some studies have shown could be linked to developing colorectal cancer and other bowel disease.
In the early 1990s, adults aged 50 to 54 were half as likely to develop colorectal cancer as those between 55 and 59.
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The researchers found that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the rates of colon cancer among adults ages 50 and up increased, and the rates among adults under age 50 decreased.
For now, experts say if you experience symptoms of colorectal cancer, you should talk to your doctor.
Many young patients have no obvious risks, Weber said, so "we suspect there may be additional factors at play".
"So it would be premature to recommend the initiation of screening at a younger age", Chan said. The disease will be diagnosed in just one in 100,000 people in their 20s compared with about 50 in 100,000 people in their early 60s, according to the study. Starting in about 1974, the rate has been increasing by about 3 percent a year among people aged 20 to 29. For people aged 40 to 54, the rates increased between.5 percent and one percent from the mid 1990s to 2013. But for younger adults, colon cancer rates increased during the same period. Rectal cancer rates in adults 55 and older, however, have been dropping for at least 40 years, Siegel said.
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