The biggest cancer risk factor is age


The biggest cancer risk factor is age

Here’s a sobering fact – the single greatest risk factor for getting cancer is aging.  Once past the age of 50, the risk increases substantially with half of all cancers diagnosed occurring after the age of 66.  In fact, the National Cancer Institute states that one quarter of cancer diagnoses are in people between the ages of 65 to 74.

Since time is always moving on and all of us are getting older day by day, it would be good to know, just why age is such a significant risk factor for developing cancer.  In other words, what’s age got to do with it?

It starts with our cells

The root cause of cells becoming cancerous appears to be mutations and other changes in our genome which is our complete set of DNA, including all of our genes.  Each genome contains all of the information needed to build and maintain us as we are.  The problem begins when mutations disrupt genes that regulate cell division and growth.  This disruption causes normal cells to grow uncontrollably.  What may start as a tiny trickle can with time become a flood of abnormal cells forming a tumor somewhere in the body.  Isn’t there anything to stop this mutation?  Not always as any additional mutations will further disable tumor-suppressing proteins which continue to feed the renegade cells. 

The aging body’s susceptibility to developing cancer

As to why an aging body makes us susceptible to developing cancer is not totally clear.  Views vary but one theory is that cancer develops in older people simply because of their prolonged exposure to carcinogens such as sunlight, radiation, environmental chemicals, and substances in foods we eat.  The other possibility already addressed has to do with random errors that occur when a cell’s DNA is copied before it divides.  This mutation can result in more cells accumulating more mutations the longer we live.

Other age-related factors that may play a role in cancer’s higher likelihood as we age include the following:

·      Long-term effects of chronic inflammation

·      Cancer-promoting DNA changes caused by oxygen free radicals

·      Less-effective DNA damage-repair mechanisms

·      Weakening immune system making it less efficient in detecting and attacking cancer cells

Is it only inevitable we will get cancer?

Before becoming depressed over the fact we can’t hold back the hands of time, researchers say they are still working on understanding the full picture of how aging and cancer are intertwined.  It doesn’t mean that as each birthday goes it is a given we’ll develop cancer. There are many people who live a long life who never do.  Plus researchers also say there are many things we can do to lessen our risk of a cancer diagnosis.  We can be “successful agers” by adopting some of the following healthy lifestyle changes as early in life as possible that can make a difference of a cancer diagnosis or not.  These simple lifestyle changes, while granted cannot guarantee you’ll never develop cancer, they can make a big impact and difference on reducing your risk.  Here is what you have control over and what you can do to help lower your cancer risk:

·      Don’t use tobacco.  Any type of tobacco puts you on a collision course with cancer. Smoking has been linked to various types of cancer including lung, mouth, throat, larynx, pancreas, bladder, cervix, and kidney. One of the most important health decisions you can make is to stop smoking. Talk to your doctor if you are struggling to do so and to find other strategies for quitting.

·      Eat a healthy diet. Consume plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and lean protein.  Reduce refined sugar and fat from animal sources and limit processed meat such as sausage, bacon, bologna and pepperoni.

·      Maintain a healthy weight and be physically active. Keeping your body weight at a healthy weight and being physically active can help lower the risk for breast, prostate, lung, colon, and kidney cancers.

·      Protect yourself from the sun. Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer and one of the most preventable. Avoid the midday sun from 10 am to 4 pm, when the sun’s rays are the strongest. Stay in the shade when outdoors and wear sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat. Use sunscreen faithfully every day and avoid tanning beds and sunlamps.

·      Get immunized. Cancer prevention includes protection from certain viral infections.  Talk to your doctor about immunizations to protect against hepatitis B (liver cancer) and human papillomavirus (HPV) to reduce risk of sexually transmitted viruses that can lead to cervical and other genital cancers as well as squamous cancers of the head and neck.

·      Avoid risky behaviors. Avoid risky behaviors that can lead to infections that might increase the risk of cancer.  Always practice safe sex as it could lead to HPV or AIDS which could lead to cervical cancer, and also cancer of the anus, liver, and lung.

·      Get regular medical care. Regular self-exams and screenings for various types of cancer such as skin, colon, cervix and breast cancer can increase your chance of discovering these cancers at an early, more treatable stage. Ask your doctor about the best cancer screening schedule for you.

Every little healthy modification we do, all adds up over the course of our lives.  No one can predict who may or may not develop cancer.  But it is safer to err on the side of doing what it takes to get and stay healthy than to test fate by engaging in an unhealthy lifestyle.