Age and cancer

  • Cancer can develop at any age. But as we get older, most types of cancer become more common.
  • This is because our cells can get damaged over time. This damage can then build up as we age, and can sometimes lead to cancer.
  • But 4 in 10 cancer cases in the UK could be prevented. Whatever your age, making small changes to your daily routine can help reduce your risk.


Cancer risk increases as we age

The older we get, the more likely we are to develop cancer.  Many people are surprised by this.

Stories about children or young people with cancer tend to make newspaper headlines, as they are often the cases which are the most shocking. But getting cancer at a young age is rare.

1 in 2 people will get cancer in their lifetime  - one of the main reasons for this being that people are living longer. Half of all cancers are in people over the age of 70.  

But getting older doesn’t mean you will definitely get cancer.



Why does cancer risk increase with age?

Over time, the cells in our body can become damaged. This can happen by chance when cells are dividing as usual. It’s also caused by things from outside the body such as chemicals from cigarette smoke or UV rays from the sun.

Often this damage can be fixed by our body. But sometimes the damage builds up and can cause cells to grow and multiply more than usual, causing cancer.

As we age, there’s more time for damage in our cells to build up, and so more chance that some of this damage might eventually lead to cancer.

The good news is survival is on the up. And thanks to research, treatments are now kinder and more effective than ever.

And don’t forget that 4 in 10 cancer cases in the UK could be prevented. Things like stopping smoking, keeping a healthy weight, eating a healthy balanced diet, staying safe in the sun, drinking less alcohol, and keeping active can all help reduce the risk of cancer. And it’s never too late to make changes.


Spotting cancer early matters

Remember, spotting cancer at an early stage means treatment is more likely to be successful.

It’s important to listen to your body. If something doesn’t look or feel quite right, speak to your doctor – don’t wait to see if it gets worse. And don’t assume unusual changes are down to ‘just getting older’, or part of another health condition you may have.

If it’s not normal for you or won’t go away, get it checked out.

Read more about why early diagnosis is important.


Why is cancer screening only offered to certain age groups?

Cancer screening looks for early signs of cancer in people without symptoms.

Screening is also only offered to people at ages when the benefits of screening are biggest and the harms are smallest. The link between age and the risk of cancer is partly why UK screening programmes invite certain age groups. If you are older than the age range for some screening programmes, you can still be screened if you want. Contact your GP surgery for more information.

Find out more about why cancer screening is only offered to certain age groups.


Cancer Research UK. Cancer Incidence by Age. [Accessed July 2021]

Brown, K. F. et al. The fraction of cancer attributable to modifiable risk factors in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the United Kingdom in 2015. Br. J. Cancer. 118, 1130–1141 (2018).

Cancer Analysis Team Office of National Statistics. Cancer Registration Statistics, England, 2017 [Accessed July 2021]

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