Epidemiology and risk factors for colorectal cancer

Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 1996 Dec;25(4):717-35. doi: 10.1016/s0889-8553(05)70271-5.


The striking geographic differences in colorectal cancer incidence and the changes in disease risk among immigrants suggest an important environmental component to colorectal cancer risk. Table 1 lists risk factors for colorectal cancer. The categories in the table are somewhat arbitrary but are designed to provide an overall semiquantitative summary of the current epidemiologic literature. Certain of the most important risk factors (e.g., age, family history) cannot be modified. Individuals at high risk might benefit from surveillance. Dietary factors appear to be among the most important determinants of colorectal cancer risk. Diet helps to explain geographic variation in disease. A diet that is high in red meat and saturated fat appears to increase risk. Vegetables, fruits, fiber, folate, and calcium may be protective. Obesity, particularly abdominal obesity, and tall stature may be risk factors. Physical activity has been repeatedly shown to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. Postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy may also be protective. Exciting new data suggest a significantly lower risk of colorectal cancer in regular users of aspirin and NSAIDs. It is important to recognize that the use of these drugs can have adverse as well as beneficial effects, and the appropriate dose and timing are not known. Enough information is available to make recommendations to lower the risk of colorectal cancer. Reducing red meat and fat consumption; increasing fruits, vegetables, and grains; avoiding obesity; and adopting a regular program of physical activity reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. Fortunately, these modifications also decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, an even more important cause of mortality in Western societies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / therapeutic use
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / genetics
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Diet / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Life Style
  • United States / epidemiology


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents