As we age, our susceptibility to various health conditions increases. This includes an increase in our risk of developing cancer, a complex disease characterised by the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. Common cancers in the elderly include breast cancer, prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, bladder cancer, and skin cancer. We need to be aware of the increased risk of cancer as we age, especially because humans are living longer than ever before.
What Causes Cancer In The Elderly?
Neither ageing nor cancer are simple processes. There are so many variables involved, both known and unknown. Our cells can get damaged, whether through exposure to substances in our environment, lifestyle, or random errors in cellular processes. While we have tools within our biology to remove or mend damaged cells, they do not always work as intended, and as we age the damage accumulates which can lead to diseases such as cancer.
The older we get, the more vulnerable we are to developing cancer. This is especially relevant in our modern times, as we are living much longer than ever before. Our immune systems also become less efficient as we age, leading to a reduced ability to fight cancer. Simply put, older age is one of the biggest risk factors for cancer.
While it varies, adults over the age of 65 are often allocated to the description of ‘elderly’. At least half of cancer cases, as well as cancer deaths, occur in those over 75. In the UK most cases of cancer are in patients in their 80s.
What Types Of Cancer Are Common In Elderly?
Generally speaking, the cancers that are common in the general population appear at a higher rate in the elderly population. There are many factors that can affect your likelihood of developing a disease, so be sure to speak to your doctor about your family history of disease, gender and age-specific risk statistics, and ideal screening, prevention, and treatment options for your unique needs.
While cancer can affect people of all ages, certain types are more prevalent among the elderly population. These are a few of the most common cancers that occur as we age:
Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women, regardless of age, but its incidence significantly rises with age. Regular mammography screenings are important when it comes to diagnosing and treating breast cancer, and thankfully the high rates of this cancer have led to large amounts of research and great advances in these areas.
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among elderly men, with the risk of developing prostate cancer increasing substantially after the age of 65 and being most common in men in their late 70s. Prostate screening is available, and the prognosis for this cancer is generally good.
Colorectal cancer, which encompasses cancers of the colon and rectum, is also prevalent among the elderly. The incidence of colorectal cancer rises progressively after the age of 50. A colonoscopy should be able to find any pre-cancerous growths which could possibly be removed, preventing further progression.
Lung cancer is a leading cause of cancer-related deaths and its prevalence increases with age, the risk of developing the disease rising significantly after the age of 60.
Smoking cessation and reducing exposure to environmental toxins, including secondhand smoke, are critical in reducing the risk of lung cancer among the elderly and should be implemented as early as possible as a preventative measure.
Bladder cancer is more common in older adults, particularly those over the age of 70. Smoking is the biggest cause, and symptoms such as blood in the urine and changes in urination should prompt further investigation.
Skin cancer is more prevalent in older individuals. Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation over a lifetime increases the risk of developing skin cancer.
Regular skin examinations and sun protection measures, such as using sunscreen and wearing protective clothing, are crucial to begin as early as possible to both prevent and detect skin cancer as you age.
How Is Cancer Treated In Old Age?
Dealing with cancer in older populations has its difficulties. Firstly there are factors such as stage at diagnosis. While every cancer type has different characteristics and every patient has unique responses and factors that affect the progression and treatment, cancers detected at early stages tend to have a better prognosis.
Research has shown that older adults are often diagnosed at later stages of cancer, in other words the cancer has progressed further and compromised more of the body’s healthy tissues and functions. Many cancer patients over 70 are only diagnosed when they are admitted to hospital for an emergency.
Breast and colorectal cancers are about 10% less likely to be diagnosed at a local or early stage in patients aged 85 and older, as opposed to their 65-84 year old counterparts. Others in the older age group don't even have any staging information because their other health concerns make it unsafe to undergo staging tests. This older age group also has the lowest relative survival rates.
Because our bodies become less resilient as we age, treating older cancer patients comes with some difficulties. Older patients often have comorbidities, are less independent, and may not have a strong support system. Older age is a risk factor for many treatments, so rather than just giving treatment to those who need it, the decision of treatment might be weighed on a risk-benefit ratio, and generally as you age the risk is higher than the benefit.
Nearly half of cancer patients aged 85 and older have a comorbid condition that would require treatment modification. These patients also usually take several medications that could interact with cancer treatment. Liver and kidney function decline can affect ability to safely metabolise cancer drugs.
Older patients (85 years and older) are less likely to be treated surgically (than the 65-84 age group). This may be due to the complexity of surgery in the oldest patients, who often have co-morbidities and functional and cognitive decline. Lastly, the oldest are less likely to be represented in clinical trials, which means that information on these groups is limited.
It's important that doctors and older people are aware of the cancer risk and are prioritising staying on top of it in terms of early detection and potential symptoms. Watch for lumps, changing moles, jaundice, recurring cough or hoarseness, changes in bowel habits, abnormal bleeding, and unexplained weight loss (among others).
What Can Be Done To Prevent Cancer?
While you can’t completely prevent cancer, there are things you can do to reduce your risk, and the earlier you begin the better your chance your body has of combating the disease.
Early detection through regular screenings and adopting a healthy lifestyle can significantly improve outcomes for all types of cancer.
Our population is remaining healthy for longer and growing older than before, which means that we need to increase awareness of the rise in cancer risk as we get older. Overall health varies in older people and some older adults may be safely able to endure cancer treatment if it is caught early enough.
Our increasing chronological age is not something we can control, but we can do things to lower our biological/physiological age. The better you look after your body and the healthier you are, the lower your biological age, and the more capable your body is of fighting illness or disease. This includes factors like having a balanced diet, regular physical activity, reduced stress levels, good sleep quality, and avoidance of tobacco smoke, alcohol, and UV radiation.
Despite the fact that younger patients can get cancer (these are the stories that we are most exposed to in the media), older adults are the most at risk. However, just because you are getting older, it does not mean that you will develop cancer.
Speak to our competent team at GlobMed for advice on taking care of your health and staying on top of any treatment needs.