Age Affects Chances of Getting Skin Cancer
Anyone can get skin cancer, but the National Cancer Institute (NCI), an agency of the National Institutes for Health (NIH), reports that advancing age is the most important risk factor for cancer overall and for many individual cancer types. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that most cases of skin cancer are found in people older than 65 years of age.
Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach want to bring this to your attention this month because May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. While skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., it is also highly treatable if caught early.
Skin cancer facts
- Nearly five million people are treated for skin cancer every year in the United States.
- It is estimated that 40 to 50 percent of fair-skinned people who reach age 65 will develop at least one skin cancer, but those with darker skin are also susceptible.
- The most preventable cause of skin cancer is exposure to UV light, either from the sun or from artificial sources like tanning beds.
- The sun’s UV rays can damage unprotected skin in as little as 15 minutes.
- Even if it’s cool and cloudy, you still need protection. UV rays, not the temperature, do the damage.
- Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, followed by squamous cell carcinoma.
- Malignant melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer. It represents only about three percent of all skin cancers diagnosed but is responsible for the most deaths.
- The NCI projects that in 2022, 99,780 people in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with melanomas of the skin, and that 7,650 people will die from the disease.
- In a 2013 survey, the CDC found that fewer than 15 percent of men and about 30 percent of women use sunscreen on their face and other exposed areas when outdoors.
Age increases risk
According to a 2012 study, older adults are 10 times more likely to get malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form, than those under age 40. And a 2019 study, published in the journal JAMA Dermatology, found a 1.8 percent annual increase in the incidence of malignant melanoma in those older than age 40 between 2006 and 2015.
Researchers aren’t sure why skin cancers become more common as we age, but some experts suggest two possibilities:
- The cumulative effect of sun exposure during our lifetimes increases risk.
- Immune function naturally declines as we get older.
- People are living longer, so their risk rises proportionally.
The CDC says that those who reach the age of 65 can expect to live, on average, two more decades. This means that efforts to improve the use of various types of sun protection and reduce sunburn among older adults would likely help to reduce skin cancer risk in the later years of life.
Early detection helps
Jennifer Gardner, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, was the author of the 2019 study. She tells AARP that, for older adults, the message from her study is to remain vigilant.
“Those in that age group should be monitoring their skin for things that are new or changing or not healing, getting things checked early so that early detection can be part of their strategy,” she said.
“If we can catch it early, we can treat it,” she added.
She recommends routine skin inspections, and having someone (a physician, a spouse, or a partner) check your skin in places that are hard to see for yourself. She also urges those who had sunburns as a child or who spent a good deal of time in the sun throughout their life should have regular exams by a board-certified dermatologist.
What to look for
Besides age and frequent sun exposure, other risk factors for skin cancer include:
- lighter, natural skin color
- blue or green eyes
- blonde or red hair
- skin that burns, reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun (“sun sensitivity”)
- large numbers of moles
- a family history of skin cancer
- a personal history of skin cancer
When checking for possible skin cancers, any new growth on the skin should be investigated. So should a sore that doesn’t heal, or a smooth, shiny, or pearly-looking bump.
In addition, an easy way to remember what other characteristics to look for is the alphabet guide provided by the CDC.
A = “asymmetrical.” Does the mole or spot have an irregular shape with two parts that look very different from each other?
B = “border.” Is the border of the mole or spot irregular or jagged?
C = “color.” Is the color uneven?
D = “diameter.” Is the mole or spot larger than the size of a pea?
E = “evolving.” Has the mole or spot changed during the past few weeks or months?
Prevention is best
Finally, remember to stay safe in the sun.
- Stay in the shade.
- Use sunscreen.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat.
- Wear clothing to the ankles.
- Wear a long-sleeved shirt.
- Use an SPF of 15 or higher with both UVA and UVB (“broad spectrum”) protection.
Making sun protection an everyday habit can help prevent sunburns and lower your risk of getting skin cancer.