Rates of colorectal cancer, more commonly known as colon cancer, are dropping substantially among Americans aged 50 and older, according to a new report from the American Cancer Society (ACS). These findings were recently published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians and its companion piece, Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2014–2016.

Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer, as well as the third most common cause of cancer deaths among Americans (both men and women). At current rates, approximately 1 in 20 Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer in their lifetime.

As of January 1, 2012, there were almost 1.2 million colon cancer survivors in the U.S.

The report attributes this significant drop in cancer rates to the rise in colonoscopy screenings, which search for cancer or pre-cancer in people without any symptoms.

Learn How Researchers Are Finding New Cancer Treatments »

Getting Screenings On Time Is Crucial

Survival rates for colon cancer have also improved rapidly in the last decade. And according to the report, if everyone had their screening tests when recommended, even more deaths could be prevented.

In a statement, Richard C. Wender, M.D., the ACS's chief cancer control officer, said, “These continuing drops in incidence and mortality show the lifesaving potential of colon cancer screening; a potential that an estimated 20 million of Americans over 50, who have never been screened, have not benefitted from.”

Wender added, “Continuing this hopeful trend will require concrete efforts to make sure all patients, particularly those who are economically disenfranchised, have access to screening and to the best care available.”

Get the Facts: What Is Colorectal Cancer? »

Colonoscopies Save Lives

Colonoscopy use has almost tripled among adults aged 50 to 75, from 19 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2010. Still, in 2010, only 59 percent of people aged 50 or older reported being up to date with their screenings for colon cancer.

These screenings prevent cancer because they help doctors identify pre-cancerous growths, called polyps, in the colon and rectum. Most polyps do not turn into cancer; however, removing them can prevent cancer from developing. Regular screening also increases the chances of finding cancer earlier, when it’s easier to treat.

A coalition of more than 70 public, private, and voluntary organizations, led by the ACS and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is working to focus efforts on increasing colon screening rates in the U.S. to 80 percent by 2018.

Read More About Colorectal Polyps »

Most people diagnosed with colon cancer are over 50 years old. The American Cancer Society recommends that colon cancer screening begin at age 50 for people who are at average risk. People who have certain risk factors that make them more likely to develop colon cancer (for instance, inflammatory bowel disease or a family history of the colon cancer) are advised to get screened earlier and to get tested more often than other people.