We all know that as we grow older, our bodies experience numerous changes. We become more conscious of our health and our vulnerability to illnesses, including cancer. You may have wondered if the risk of developing cancer also increases with age, and the answer is yes. Most cancers are diagnosed in people over the age of 50, with the elderly demonstrating the highest incidence.
How Is Our Age Connected To Cancer Risk?
Cancer is a group of diseases characterised by the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. There are more than 100 different types of cancer, which can affect various parts of the body. Several studies have shown a strong correlation between increasing age and the incidence of cancer. Certain cancers are more prevalent in older adults. As age increases, the risk of developing prostate cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer increases too, to name but a few. But why does the risk of cancer increase with age? The association between age and cancer risk can be explained by several factors:
Accumulated damage to DNA
Throughout our lives, our cells experience DNA damage due to various factors, such as exposure to harmful chemicals, radiation, and other environmental agents. Our bodies have mechanisms in place to repair this damage, but they're not always perfect. As we age, the accumulated DNA damage can lead to genetic mutations, which may cause cells to become cancerous.
Weakening immune system
Our immune system plays a vital role in protecting us against cancer by detecting and destroying abnormal cells. However, as we age, our immune system's ability to function efficiently declines, making it more difficult for the body to eliminate cancerous cells.
Some medical conditions that become more common as we age, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, are associated with an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer.
As our cells age, they may lose their ability to function properly and can become more susceptible to the development of cancer. Cellular ageing can be influenced by various factors, including genetics, lifestyle choices, and environmental exposures. Accumulated DNA damage (as discussed above) is also a factor that can affect cellular ageing.
How Do I Reduce My Risk Of Cancer?
Age is a significant risk factor for cancer, and while we can't stop the ageing process, there are several ways we can reduce our risk of developing cancer as we get older:
Maintain A Healthy Lifestyle
Eating a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein can help reduce cancer risk. Regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption can also contribute to lower cancer risk.
Chronic stress can have a negative impact on your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off cancerous cells. Engage in stress-reducing activities like meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, or hobbies that you enjoy. Additionally, getting sufficient sleep and maintaining a strong support network of friends and family can help manage stress.
Limit Exposure To Carcinogens
Reducing exposure to known carcinogens, such as tobacco smoke, ultraviolet radiation, and certain chemicals, can help lower cancer risk.
Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, and its risk increases with age. Take precautions by using sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, wearing protective clothing, and avoiding excessive sun exposure, especially during peak hours.
Regular cancer screenings can help detect cancer at an early stage when it's more treatable. Talk to your doctor about which screenings are appropriate for your age, gender, and personal risk factors. Some common screenings include mammograms for breast cancer, colonoscopies for colorectal cancer, and Pap tests for cervical cancer.
Know Your Family History
If you have a family history of cancer, you may have an increased risk of developing the same type of cancer. Share this information with your doctor, who can help you understand your risk and take appropriate preventive measures.
Consider Your Hormone Levels
Hormones like oestrogen and testosterone can influence cancer risk. For instance, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been associated with an increased risk of certain cancers in postmenopausal women. Consult your doctor about the risks and benefits of hormone therapies and alternatives, if needed.
Stay Informed And Be Your Own Advocate
Educate yourself about cancer risks, symptoms, and preventive measures. Regular check-ups and open communication with your healthcare provider can help detect any health changes early on, increasing the chances of successful treatment.
Keep track of any new symptoms or changes in your body, and inform your doctor accordingly. By staying informed, you can make better decisions about your health and work collaboratively with your healthcare provider.
Does Ageing Affect Cancer Treatment And Prognosis?
Age can affect cancer survival rates, as older patients may experience different outcomes compared to younger ones. However, it's important to note that each individual's cancer journey is unique, and survival rates can vary depending on the type and stage of cancer, the person's overall health, and the available treatment options.
Older adults could be diagnosed with cancer at a later stage, partly due to age-related changes in the body that can mask cancer symptoms. This late diagnosis makes treatment more challenging and may result in poorer outcomes.
If cancer is diagnosed, the course of action will depend on the type and stage of cancer, as well as the individual's overall health and personal preferences. Treatment options can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy.
It’s important to consider the potential benefits and risks of treatment, as being older may also mean that you have a higher risk of experiencing side effects or complications due to age-related factors such as comorbidities and decreased organ or immune functions.
In some cases, a less aggressive treatment approach, known as watchful waiting or active surveillance, may be recommended for those with slow-growing cancers that are not causing symptoms. This approach involves closely monitoring the cancer without immediate treatment, and intervening only if the cancer shows signs of progression.
Should I Be Worried About Cancer As I Age?
The risk of cancer does increase with age, primarily due to the accumulation of DNA mutations, weakening of the immune system, exposure to carcinogens, and age-related diseases. However, this doesn't mean that cancer is an inevitable part of ageing. Many factors contribute to an individual's cancer risk, including genetics, lifestyle choices, and environmental exposures.
Focusing on modifiable factors like maintaining a healthy lifestyle, getting screened regularly, and staying up-to-date on vaccinations can help lower the risk of developing cancer as we age. Speak to someone about your individual concerns, and remember that cancer prevention is an ongoing process. It's never too late to make positive changes in your life.