The incidence of esophageal adenocarcinoma in the United States is rising at an epidemic rate. Although the cause for this rapid rise is unclear, it is well established that nearly all cases of esophageal adenocarcinoma arise from a premalignant lesion of the esophagus, known as Barrett's esophagus. Although Barrett's esophagus is recognized as a precursor lesion, the etiology, prevalence, and malignant risk of this lesion remain unclear. The relatively short, two-decade time frame for the rise in esophageal adenocarcinoma incidence and the increase across populations is a strong argument for environmental factors as etiological agents, perhaps interacting with genetically determined characteristics that define personal susceptibility. Because of the strong link between Barrett's esophagus and esophageal adenocarcinoma and the link between Barrett's esophagus and gastroesophageal reflux disease, risk factors for gastroesophageal reflux disease have been the prime suspects offered as possible explanations for the rise in esophageal adenocarcinoma. A plethora of hypotheses have been advanced, implicating tobacco and alcohol consumption, changes in obesity and diet, and the changing pattern in use of medications that affect the upper gastrointestinal tract. The following text will review what is currently known about the epidemiology of Barrett's metaplasia, its risk for malignant transformation, and the proposed theories of etiogenesis.

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