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According to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, age is the biggest single risk factor for cancer.
More than two-thirds of all new cancers are diagnosed in adults age 60 and older.
The National Cancer Institute tells us that one-quarter of new cancer diagnoses are in people ages 65 to 74.
And according to 2010 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tumors that have the potential to spread and invade other tissues are nearly three times as common in people 75 and older, as compared to people ages 50 to 64.
Given these numbers, it would seem that much, if not most, of our prevention efforts should be focused on addressing the particular challenges and cancer risk factors faced by older adults.
In April 2017, the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors and the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) brought together a group of experts to examine how cancer in this age group could be better prevented.
The discussions among the experts from various fields, including gerontology and cancer treatment, resulted in eleven articles published as a supplement titled “Opportunities for Cancer Prevention During Older Adulthood.”
Here, we’d like to give you the most important and useful nuggets of information and wisdom from those writings, things that you can use now to reduce cancer risk for yourself or a loved one.
Why are older adults more at risk?
At least four major areas were identified that influence cancer risk in older adults. The good news: some of them are fixable, through social programs and education of both patients and their doctors.
Social isolation. Older adults are susceptible to loneliness and isolation.
Loved ones and peers die, children move away, and suddenly there’s no one to talk to. We already know that chronic loneliness increases your chances of early death as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
One study found that socially isolated women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer have a higher risk of death, likely due to a lack of access to care, particularly caretaking by friends, relatives or children.
Cumulative exposure to toxins. As the years go by, our bodies accumulate exposure to things that can change our DNA and lead to malignancies: sunlight, radiation, environmental toxins, and our own metabolic waste products.
Less ability to self-repair. Older cells just aren’t as good at fighting the things that damage them. Older tissue tends to have more of the chronic inflammation that promotes the growth of cancer cells.
Weaker immune system. Our immune system, the “watchdog” of our body that keeps our tissues healthy, starts to “go to sleep” as we age.
Other health conditions complicate things
Older adults are more likely to have other health conditions like heart disease, diabetes or lung conditions that could complicate cancer treatment.
These other conditions could cause a reaction to cancer drugs, or the drugs may make the other illnesses worse.
For example, some cancer drugs can cause inflammation of the lungs, while steroids, often given to ease the side effects of chemo, can mess with blood sugar levels.
Another complication is that cancer is simply under-diagnosed in this age group. Doctors often look for other age-related illnesses to explain symptoms before they’ll turn to a possible cancer diagnosis.
This may be because, even though cancer is so common in older adults, most studies that have looked at treatment options have not included subjects over 70 years old.
As a result, doctors and surgeons often act under the mistaken assumption that the treatment options, risks, and benefit are the same for the elderly as for anyone else.
Some cancer prevention tips for the over-65 crowd
The good news is that there is much we can do to address the risk factors mentioned above.
Reverse social isolation. If you are feeling isolated and lonely on a daily basis, your body is actually suffering damage. Your genes respond by producing an inflammatory response that can lead to heart disease and cancer.
Nip that in the bud! Seek out social connections. Book groups, the gym, or just a regularly scheduled walk or cup of coffee with a friend or acquaintance can be enough to make a huge difference.
Combat the cumulative effects of toxins. We have a lot of control here! Read this excellent article where Dr. Isaac Eliaz outlines the steps you can take to protect yourself, which include eating the right food, supporting your body through lifestyle practices and botanical supplements, and periodic detoxing with modified citrus pectin.
Strengthen your immune system. So many ways to take control here! Read this article to learn about some of them. And here, find out how to make your immune system cancer-proof by eating the right foods and caring for your digestive health.
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- Experts urge stronger emphasis on cancer prevention in older population — EurekAlert!
- Never Too Old to Fight Cancer — Scientific American
- Cancer Risk Among Older Adults: Time for Cancer Prevention to Go Silver — The Gerontologist
- Cancers after the age of 75 — Cancer Society of Finland
- Why Does Cancer Risk Increase As We Get Older? — Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
- Social networks, social support, and survival after breast cancer diagnosis — Journal of Clinical Oncology