It may not be surprising that aging significantly increases the risk of developing cancer, but why is that the case? There are many possible explanations, and scientists are working hard to determine which are the most causal.
The changes in cells that cause them to become cancerous often take a long time to develop. The damage can be due to genetic mutations or external carcinogens. Cancer is formed when cells cannot stop dividing, causing tumors to develop. The cancerous cells pass on those cancerous properties to their "daughter" cells. The longer we live, the more time there is for the cells to multiply, causing cancer to develop.
The mechanisms that repair cell damage may become less effective over time, which will increase the risk of cancer. Cells use the oxygen we breathe to create energy, however, this process also forms free radicals, which are unstable atoms looking to "steal" an electron from a stable atom, causing a chain reaction of damage. For example, if this process damages a critical gene such as tumor suppressor p53, which keeps cells from dividing uncontrollably, it can lead to cancer.
Because of the effects of aging on cancer development, people aged 50 and over should be especially conscious of ways to prevent and detect cancer. The risk of many types of cancer can be greatly reduced by the daily decisions we make. Avoiding sunburns, eating right, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, avoiding the use of tobacco products, and keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum are the most important ways your risk of developing cancer can be greatly reduced.
Detecting cancer early is another way to increase your probability of fighting off cancer, particularly in people over the age of 50. When cancer is found early, especially before it spreads to other sites in the body, treatments are more likely to be effective. Conducting self exams is recommended to become aware of changes in your body. Though often the following symptoms are not indicative of cancer, if you experience any one of them, it is best to notify your physician as soon as possible:
• Lumps in the breast or other parts of the body
• A sore that does not heal
• A new mole or change in an existing mole
• A hard time swallowing
• Feeling very weak or tired
• Changes in bowel or bladder habits
• Unusual bleeding or discharge
• Discomfort after eating
Getting routine tests such as mammograms, pap tests, prostate exams and skin and breast exams regularly is crucial to your ability to defeat cancer early. Consult your healthcare professional to learn more about the recommended frequency of these tests.