Cancer and Aging: A Growing Global Crisis

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The world’s health systems may soon become unable to bear the increasing financial burden of cancer care, according to a recent report from the World Health Organization. The importance of taking prevention seriously can’t be understated, and it could literally save your life.

The world’s population is aging. Life expectancy in the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia now averages slightly under 80 years among all ethnic groups for those born in the present era, and slightly higher than 80 years for the Asian population living in the U.S. (source: World Health Organization Global Health Data Repository, Life Expectancy Data). Although life expectancy in parts of the less developed world lags behind these statistics, global life expectancy has increased dramatically in the past 40 years. With birth rates generally in decline, and people living much longer than they did just a few decades ago, older individuals comprise a majority of the world’s population, and the size of that majority is expected to increase substantially in the coming years.

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) released it’s World Cancer Report, which contained some data on aging and cancer. The report predicts, among other things, that new cancer cases will rise from slightly over 14 million to nearly 22 million annually within the next two decades. This prediction is alarming enough but when you consider that even with advances in treatment, cancer deaths will also likely rise from a little over 8 million to 13 million per year, the picture becomes even more alarming. The report also warns that while both the variety and effectiveness of available treatments have increased dramatically over the past several decades, the world simply cannot depend upon treatment as the answer to its growing cancer problem. The health care system is already stressed and “reactive” treatment for the various cancer-related diseases is very expensive. In the absence of a breakthrough in novel, more cost-effective treatments, the system will soon become unable to bear the increasing financial burden of cancer care. The result is a growing crisis in healthcare that the WHO report indicates could easily become a worldwide disaster if solutions are not found relatively soon.

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Aging is arguably the single biggest risk factor for developing cancer. Even if you come from a family that doesn’t have a history of cancer, the older you get, the greater your chances are of getting some form of cancer. Aging is a complex process involving the constant replication and replacement of cells. The more times this happens, the greater the risk something in the process will go wrong. A mutation here, a malformation there, mix in a few environmental carcinogens that have accumulated over a lifetime, and before you know it you have abnormal cells and a cancer developing somewhere in your body. Aging also increases the risk of death due to cancer. As we age, we’re less able to tolerate stress and to mount adequate defenses against disease. We’re also less able to tolerate the stress and side effects associated with cancer treatment, especially the ultra-taxing treatments often necessary for the most aggressive types of cancer.

Aging is a big factor in the development of diseases other than cancer, such as the various types of dementia, Type II Diabetes, vascular disease, and various muscle and joint diseases. But the costs associated with treatments for these diseases pale in comparison to the costs associated with cancer treatment. So while aging alone is already stressing the healthcare system, the fact that our aging population is facing an increased cancer risk will place significant additional stress on the system.

About the only silver lining in the statistics is the fact that almost half of all cancers discussed in the WHO report are preventable. Many of the leading cancers are heavily lifestyle-related, such as lung cancer, which is still most strongly linked to smoking, and abdominal cancers, which are at least moderately linked to diet and exercise. Lifestyle also plays a large role in some of the other diseases presently straining the healthcare system, especially Type II Diabetes and cardiovascular disease. So, stepped-up prevention efforts might help forestall the crisis. But recent efforts to increase public awareness and spur stronger prevention measures have not yielded the fruits many anticipated, so the importance of taking prevention seriously can’t be understated. Cancers that are caught early are more easily and more cost-effectively treated. Because of the tendency of many initially localized cancers to spread, the success of treatment is heavily dependent on how early a cancer is detected.

The NIH’s Institute on Aging urges folks over 50 to be on the lookout for certain warning signs. Now these signs don’t necessarily mean a person has cancer — they can be associated with other conditions as well, including benign conditions. In our times, it’s more important than ever to be proactive, and for those over 50, it’s important to be extra cautious. As the adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and in light of the WHO cancer report, it seems the adage couldn’t be more true. So for those of us now in the majority, the prescription is clear: eat right, exercise frequently, get regular check-ups, and be on the lookout for the warning signs of cancer. With every advancing year, your risk of developing certain diseases, especially cancer, increases. Taking the right action and taking it early can not only help you feel better now and enjoy your later years more, it could literally save your life.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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