The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Esophageal cancer may be rising among the middle-aged

An esophagram or barium swallow test image shows an esophageal stent placement for a patient. The test may be used to look for problems in the esophagus. (iStock)
Placeholder while article actions load

About 20,640 U.S. adults will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer this year, according to estimates from the American Cancer Society (ACS). This type of cancer, which affects the esophagus — the tube that carries swallowed food from your throat to your stomach — has been found most often in people 65 and older, especially men.

The ACS says that, overall, diagnosis rates have been fairly steady in recent years. A report, however, suggests that esophageal cancer may be increasing among middle-aged people.

Twenty years ago, a cancer reprieve for my husband on one of the country’s most terrible days

Based on data from roughly 5 million people, the researchers found that, among those ages 45 to 64, the esophageal cancer rate nearly doubled from 2012 to 2019.

In addition, the prevalence of Barrett’s esophagus, a precancerous condition, rose about 50 percent in that age group in those years. Barrett’s esophagus, which usually develops when the lining of the swallowing tube is damaged by chronic acid reflux, is considered a common precursor of esophageal cancer.

Factors that can irritate cells in the esophagus, and thus increase risk for esophageal cancer, include smoking, drinking alcohol, having gastrointestinal reflux disease and being obese.

For heartburn problems, lifestyle changes make a difference, research finds

This type of cancer typically has few symptoms until it has become advanced. Then, signs may include difficulty swallowing, coughing, heartburn, indigestion and unexplained weight loss.

Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are among treatment options. Esophageal cancer will prove fatal to an estimated 16,410 U.S. adults this year, according to the ACS.

The researchers, who presented their findings at the 2022 Digestive Disease Week conference, say that more middle-aged people should be screened for esophageal cancer.

This article is part of The Post’s “Big Number” series, which takes a brief look at the statistical aspect of health issues. Additional information and relevant research are available through the hyperlinks.

Loading...