Age and cancer

Coronavirus and cancer

We know it’s a worrying time for people with cancer, we have information to help. If you have symptoms of cancer contact your doctor.

Read our information about coronavirus and cancer

  • Cancer can develop at any age. But cancer is much more common in older people. Almost 9 in 10 cancer cases in the UK are in people aged 50 or over. And this is true for most types of cancer.
  • This is because our cells can get damaged over time. This damage can build up as we age, and can sometimes lead to cancer.
  • The good news is around 4 in 10 cancer cases in the UK could be prevented. Whatever your age, living more healthily can help stack the odds against cancer.

Cancer is more common in older people

The risk of developing cancer increases with age.

Many people are surprised by this.

You might have heard about children or young people with cancer. But often these stories are shared because they’re rare, and so are particularly shocking or upsetting.

Why does cancer risk increase with age?

Over time, the cells in our body can become damaged. This can happen by chance or be caused by things such as cigarette smoke or UV rays from the sun. Sometimes this damage can be fixed by our body. But sometimes this damage builds up and can cause cells to grow and multiple more than usual, causing cancer.

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

Rarely, a person might be born with damage already in their cells that makes cancer more likely.

This doesn’t mean you will definitely get cancer as you get older.

But being aware of your body and knowing what’s normal for you is even more important as we age. If you do notice any changes to your body that are unusual or don’t go away, it’s important to tell your doctor. Don’t put it down to age or a different health condition.

And whatever your age, living more healthily can help stack the odds against cancer. Things like stopping smoking, keeping a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, being safe in the sun, drinking less alcohol, and keeping active can all help reduce the risk of cancer. It’s never too late to make a change.

The link between age and the risk of cancer is why UK screening programmes only invite particular age groups. Find out about cancer screening programmes here.

Cancer Research UK. Cancer Incidence by Age. [Accessed June 2018]

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, 2016.2018:1-22. [Accessed June 2018]

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