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- Although the overall cancer rate in the United States has been in decline since the 1990s, certain types of cancers are becoming increasingly common, especially in older adults. Those linked to obesity, such as liver and pancreatic cancer, are among the fastest-growing.
- People are more at risk of cancer as they age because of a decline in their immune systems, lifestyle factors like diet and alcohol/tobacco use, and treatment of other chronic illnesses.
- Here are some of the types of cancer on the rise in older adults, factors that may be contributing to the increase, and what you can do to reduce your risk.
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Age is still the number one risk factor for developing cancer.
And as the older population in the US increases, the number of new cancer cases are expected to rise by as much as 2.1 million by 2030, even as overall cancer rates are declining in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
More than 60% of all new cancer diagnoses are in people aged 60 and older, according to the CDC. Older men are more at risk of some of the more prevalent types of cancer, such as liver cancer. But older women continue to be at the highest risk of breast cancer.
Here are some of the most common types of cancer that are on the rise in older adults, and some of the risk factors contributing to the increase.
The rate of liver cancer has more than tripled in the past few decades.
Liver cancer is the most rapidly increasing cancer in the United States for both men and women, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
The rate of liver cancer increased by about 3% each year from 2006 to 2015, according to data from the CDC, and has more than tripled since the 1980s. An estimated 42,030 new cases will be diagnosed in 2019.
An unhealthy diet is a major part of the rise in liver cancers, and as many as 70% of cases may be related to obesity, type two diabetes, heavy alcohol consumption, or tobacco use.
Chronic infections like hepatitis B and C also play a part. Hepatitis vaccinations and testing can help protect older adults; the ASC estimates fewer than 1 in 8 baby boomers have been tested for hepatitis.
Oral cancers are increasing, but only in white people.
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The rate of oral cavity and pharynx (throat) cancers has gone down by 2% in black men and women, but increased by 1.2% in whites, according to the ACS. About 53,000 new case are expected to be diagnosed in 2019, and rates are more than twice as high in men than in women.
Tobacco and alcohol use are partly to blame. People who both smoke and drink heavily are 30 times more likely to be diagnosed than those who don’t, per ACS data.
However, oral cancers are also related to complications of human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually-transmitted disease that can infect the mouth and throat. Vaccinations now prevent HPV infection in younger people, but those over 45 are still at risk.
Skin cancer is increasing in people 50 and older.
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Skin cancer – the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the US – has risen about 3% in both men and women aged 50 and older, according to the ACS.
Although family history is a factor in skin cancer, especially melanoma, health official estimate that most cases could be prevented with better sun protection.
Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is a major factor in skin cancer. Wearing long-sleeves and wide-brimmed hats, avoiding prolonged time in the sun, and using a sunblock with an SPF of 30 or higher can reduce your risk.
Uterine cancer is growing as a result of the obesity epidemic.
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The incidence rate of uterine cancer has been on the rise since 2016, increasing by about 1% annually for white women and 2% annually for black women.
Obesity is a strong factor in uterine cancer because it increases the amount of circulating estrogen, according to the ACS.
Exercise and use of birth control (either via medication or intra-uterine devices) can reduce the risk.
Incidences of pancreatic cancer are increasing.
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Cases of pancreatic cancer have been increasing about 1% a year, according to ACS data, and deaths from pancreatic cancer have also been slowly rising.
An estimated 56,770 new cases will be diagnosed in 2019, and an estimated 45,750 deaths will occur over the same time period.
Lifestyle factors like smoking and diet are closely linked to pancreatic cancer. People who smoke are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed than those who have never used tobacco. Heavy drinking, type two diabetes, obesity and family history are other related factors.
Breast cancer rates are up slightly in women between 65 and 84 years old.
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The rate of new breast cancer cases has been slowly increasing since 2006, although the mortality rate from breast cancer has declined, according to the ACS. Older women are most at risk.
While obesity and lack of exercise can increase the risk, some of the biggest factors in breast cancer are family history and hormone levels.
The rate of breast cancer in the women aged 85 and older has actually decreased by 2.1% per year since 2009. It’s not clear why this is happening, but the ACS theorizes women in that age group may be tested less often, resulting in fewer diagnoses.