Age and Cancer

Although cancer can occur at any age, it is much more common in older people. In fact, half of all cancer cases in the UK each year are diagnosed in people aged 70 or over.

This doesn’t mean that younger people don’t develop cancer, just that they are less likely to. As well as cancer being less common overall in younger people, children and teenagers tend to be diagnosed with different types of cancer than older people.

Cancer risk may increase as we get older, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do about it. However old you are, healthier changes to your life help stack the odds against cancer.

Cancer is more common in older people

As people get older, the risk of developing cancer increases. This fact might be surprising as the press often report on childhood cancer, or people in their 20s, 30s or 40s who have developed the disease. This can be misleading and make it seem that these are the age groups most likely to be affected. The graph below shows how cancer rates increase with age. 

The link between age and cancer is the reason why people in particular age groups are invited to take part in screening programmes that aim to detect cancer at an early stage. You can find out if you are eligible for any of the UK cancer screening programmes on our cancer screening webpage.

Why does cancer risk increase as we get older?

Over time, the cells in our body can become damaged. As we age, this damage builds up, and could result in cancer.

This damage could be because of things like cigarette smoke, drinking alcohol and how active we are. But the damage could also happen by chance, and some people are born with damage to their genes that can make them more likely to develop cancer.

Once cells are damaged, they may start to grow and multiply more than usual, forming a growth called a tumour. This is the start of cancer.     

Age and different cancer types

Although the risk of most cancer types increases as we get older, there are some cancer types that are more common in younger people and less common in adults.

Even though there are a few types of cancer that affect younger people more than older people, the majority of cancer types (including the most common types: breast, lung and prostate cancer) are more common in older people.

What does this mean for me?

Although the risk of cancer increases as we get older, this doesn’t mean that you will definitely get cancer at some point. But it does mean that being aware of changes in your body, and going to the doctor if you notice anything unusual or that doesn’t go away, is even more important as we age.

We can also make changes throughout our lives to help stack the odds in our favour. Stopping smoking, keeping a healthy weight and reducing alcohol intake can all help to reduce the risk of cancer.

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