Smoking, drinking still key triggers for oral cancers

Despite a growing body of research pointing to the role of sexually transmitted diseases in increasing rates of oral cancers, young adults who smoke, drink, and eat low levels of fruit and vegetables are at higher risk of contracting cancers of the mouth, esophagus, and larynx, according to researchers from the University of Aberdeen.

Their five-year, pan-European study funded by a European Union grant aimed to understand what factors were important in these cancers among individuals younger than age 50. The study involved 350 patients younger than 50 with these cancers and 400 patients who were cancer-free.

"Cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract (UADT) are on the increase throughout the world, and to date the increases have been greatest in young adults under the age of 50," noted Gary Macfarlane, M.D., a professor of epidemiology at the university, in a press release. "For example, we have witnessed a doubling of oral cancer rates in 40- to 49-year-old men in the U.K. over the last 20 years."

He and his colleagues found that 88% of UADT cancers in this age group were caused by smoking tobacco, alcohol consumption, and/or a lack of fruit and vegetables in a person's diet.

"Our study aimed to determine whether smoking, alcohol consumption, and low fruit and vegetable intake remained the most significant risk factors for UADT cancers in this age group, or whether other novel factors, including genetics and infection, could be relatively more important," Dr. Macfarlane said. "Our findings confirmed that smoking tobacco, heavy alcohol consumption, and a lack of fruit and vegetable in a person's diet remained the most important causes of cancers of the UADT."

The increase in the occurrence of UADT cancers in this age group is likely to be linked to increased alcohol consumption, and future studies will determine whether binge drinking carries a particularly high risk, he added.

The results of the study indicate the public health message in preventing cancers of the UADT should remain the same for young and old alike, Dr. Macfarlane noted.

"The results of our study further emphasize that the message we need to be communicating to the public remains the same: That smoking, drinking, and diet are the major triggers of these diseases at all ages," he said.

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