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Why Are We More Likely To Get Cancer As We Age?

The Conversation

This article is part of our series on older people’s health. It looks at the changes and processes that occur in our body as we age, the conditions we’re more likely to suffer from and what we can do to prevent them.


It’s a sobering fact that one in two Australian men and one in three Australian women will be diagnosed with some form of cancer by the age of 85. It’s even more alarming when you consider these statistics do not include the most common skin cancers (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma of the skin). It is estimated hundreds of thousands of Australians are treated for these each year.

The number of new cases of cancer diagnosed has increased dramatically in the last three decades. In Australia, 47,445 new cases of cancer were diagnosed in 1982 and 122,093 in 2012. This has led some to think the risks of acquiring cancer are on the increase in modern society.

Of course, increased population accounts for much of the increase in these figures. But the other major factor is modern medicine increasing our lifespan. As we survive diseases and live longer, more of us are succumbing to cancer.

The risk of cancer increases as we age

A closer look at the cancer figures in relation to age at diagnosis shows a clear and dramatic increase in cancer as we age. For children and adults up to their forties, the incidence of cancer is quite low, but then increases quite dramatically as we get older.

The incidence of cancer is around ten times higher in people 60 years and older, than in those under 60.

Cancer: a disease of our genes

So, why is it we’re more likely to get cancer as we get older? Cancer is a disease caused by errors in our genes – the DNA code in our cells that provides the blueprints for all cell functions. These errors arise for a number of reasons.

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