FIRST, the good news. A bowel cancer screening initiative in Scotland has reported increased uptake among eligible Scots. The number of people who have never before done such tests is up; so, too, is the number of those who lived in deprived areas. The fact that the test has become easier has helped. Generally, the occurrence of bowel cancer is down from the level of a decade ago, thanks principally to a decline among older Scots.

Now, the bad news in bowel cancer. More and more Scots, too young to qualify for screening, are being diagnosed with the disease. Expressed as percentages, the increases are alarming, so it is important to remind ourselves of the context by saying that there were eight diagnoses in four years among children aged 10 and 14, and 32 among those aged between 15 and 19. Nevertheless, worrying increases have been observed across the board, including the early-20s age group and those in their early thirties. The pattern is being repeated in Europe, Australia and China.

There is a multiplicity of possible causes, from diets low in fibre to obesity and a lack of exercise. One recent study found that sitting in front of the television for as little as one hour a day can increase one’s risk of bowel cancer. Separately, a leading French scientist, co-author of a World Health Organisation paper linking processed meat consumption with cancer, has criticised governments over their failure to rid nitrites from processed meat. Increasing rates of inflammatory bowel disease among the young might be another contributory factor.

What can be done? Lowering the screening age might be contentious, but America has now lowered the age there to 45. Education programmes might help, too, with respect to obesity, lack of exercise and the risks of consuming too much processed meat. As Bowel Cancer UK says, too many young people see bowel cancer as something that happens to older people; ideally, we need to find faster and more effective ways of identifying and diagnosing young people with symptoms of the disease.