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Why Cancer Risks Increase As We Age

Why Cancer Risks Increase As We Age

Cancer is a scary word. And it’s one that you have a greater chance of hearing more of the older you get. The disease certainly doesn’t discriminate as people of all ages are diagnosed; however, your odds of getting cancer goes up as you age. Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide, with one in three people being diagnosed.

Age is the biggest single risk factor for developing cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the median age of a cancer diagnosis is 66 years. Medical researchers and scientists have known this correlation to exist for years, but they haven’t been entirely sure as to why aging increases cancer risk. Several studies have shed light on this subject and given researchers insight as to why this may be. Let’s take a closer look at some of their findings and theories.

Too Many Years of DNA Error

To put it in simple terms, cancer is a disease of our genes. It develops when mutations within our body occur. Our cells contain a unique code, known as our DNA. It’s our DNA that provides direction to all of our cells so they can function properly throughout our body. DNA is like a blueprint for all cellular functions.

Throughout our lifetime, our cells are continuously replicating themselves through division. Cells divide and create new cells for two reasons: growth and to repair damaged or dead cells. Think of a scraped knee and how your body heals itself. That’s because of new cells being created.

However, this replication process isn’t always perfect. DNA mutations, or errors, can occur during the cell division and build up over time, possibly leading to cancer. Cells in a healthy body are usually able to spot the damaged DNA and correct the problem before any harm is done. But over time, some errors do tend to get through.

Obviously, the older we get, the more our cells will have replicated. This means there’s been more time for DNA errors and faulty cells to build up and wreak havoc in our bodies. Hence why the odds of getting cancer increases with age.

Now that we know mutations are to blame let’s discuss what causes these mutations to occur.

senior woman getting an MRI to screen for cancer and risk

Causes for Cellular Mutations

So, we’ve established that the older we are, the more we will acquire cells with mutations. And it’s these mutated cells that create an increased risk for recruiting cancer-initiating cells. But why are our cells splitting and mutating?

Prolonged Exposure to Carcinogens – Carcinogens are any substance or thing that contributes to causing cancer. Carcinogens damage the DNA in our cells, which then leads to cellular mutations. They can also cause cells to divide at a faster rate which then increases the risk that DNA errors will occur, leading to mutations.

Some of the most common substances and exposures known to be carcinogenic include:

  • Tobacco and tobacco smoke
  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation and ultraviolet-emitting devices, such as tanning beds
  • Alcohol
  • Processed meat
  • Asbestos
  • Engine exhaust
  • Leather and wood dust
  • Air pollution

Weakened Immune System – As we mentioned earlier, when we are young and healthy, our cells can usually spot the DNA errors and repair the divided cell before it becomes permanently mutated. It’s sort of like a safety net or surveillance. Our immune functions see a threat and eradicate cells that are suspected of becoming cancerous. However, as with many things, with age, our immune systems start to become compromised. They aren’t as quick to spot the threats. And our older, weakened immune systems can’t adapt to the unexpected changes like they once used to.

Chronic Inflammation – Inflammation is a normal and healthy physiological response that takes place in the body. This process helps to heal injured tissue. When the body is damaged, chemicals are released that trigger white blood cells to divide and grow. Through this process, new tissue is created to help repair the injury. (Think of the scraped knee analogy again.) However, when there is chronic inflammation, the inflammatory healing process begins even when there is no injury. This leads to rapid cell division, which we’ve discussed, increases the risk of mutagenic DNA damage.

Chronic inflammation can be caused by many things, including:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Chronic stress
  • Auto-immune disorders, such as arthritis
  • Frequent infections

Lower Your Cancer Risk With Prevention

You can’t turn back the hands of time, and you can’t stop it, but you can work with it. Yes, your cancer risk goes up with age, but aging isn’t a time bomb. Not everyone will get cancer. Your best bet at beating the odds of getting cancer is through prevention. Living a healthy lifestyle will help your body and cells stay strong and repair damaged DNA. Researchers have found that even making simple lifestyle changes can modify your risk of developing cancer. These changes include:

  • Eating a healthy and well-balanced diet
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Increasing physical activity
  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Quitting smoking

In addition to practicing healthy lifestyle choices, it’s also important to visit your primary care physician for an annual wellness exam to help lower your odds of getting cancer. These appointments help to look for signs that you may be at risk. Visiting your healthcare provider also helps to manage any chronic conditions you may be experiencing. So, don’t wait; schedule your wellness visit today. Contact a VIPcare provider near you and stay on the road to Better Health.