Cancer in Older Adults

According to the National Institutes of Health, the incidence of cancer increases as we age. In fact, people over 65 account for 60% of all newly diagnosed malignancies and 70% of all cancer deaths. Mutations and other changes in DNA are at the root of cells becoming cancerous. Over many years these mutated cells multiply and grow uncontrollably. It is this cell growth which forms malignant tumors.

In addition, older adults have also been exposed to various carcinogens (substances or agents which can cause cancer) over a longer period of time. This includes prolonged exposure to sunlight, chemicals in the environment, radiation, alcohol, nicotine, and substances in food.


You are never too old to reap the benefits of giving up bad habits. For example, research published in 2016 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that older adults who quit smoking in their 60s had a 23% lower risk of death compared to those who continued smoking. Giving up smoking will prolong your life–no matter what your age.

There are other lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of cancer:

Sit less. A sedentary lifestyle can increase your risk of developing cancer. On the other hand, physical activity–even in moderate amounts, will reduce your risk. A 2008 study by the NIH and AARP looked at over 488,000 participants between the ages of 50-71. Researchers concluded that participation in some type of exercise or sport five or more times per week (compared to never or rarely exercising) was associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer among men and a possible decrease in risk among women.

Limit alcohol use. NIH research indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks–particularly over time–the higher the risk of developing an alcohol-related cancer. This includes cancer of the head and neck, esophagus, liver, breast, and colorectal.

Get a good night’s sleep. Some research shows a connection between poor quality sleep and an increase risk of prostate, colorectal and breast cancer. Many older adults have difficulty falling and staying asleep. This is due to a variety of factors including: Pain and medical conditions; medications; lack of exercise; and stress. All adults, no matter their age, should aim for 7.5 to 9 hours of quality sleep per night. Don’t watch television and other electronic devices in bed, keep the bedroom dark, quiet, and cool, develop relaxing bedtime rituals, limit caffeine later in the day, and avoid alcohol near bedtime. Moreover, do not rely on sleep aids which are only meant for short-term use.

Eat healthy. The American Institute for Cancer Research urges older Americans to maintain a healthy weight and be as lean as possible without being underweight. In addition, AICR suggests 30 minutes of physical activity every day and to: Choose mostly a plant-based diet; limit red meats and avoid processed meats; avoid sugary drinks; reduce alcohol consumption; and limit salty foods and heavily processed foods with sodium. Furthermore, don’t rely on supplements to protect against cancer.


Although the majority of cancers are diagnosed in seniors they are underrepresented in clinical treatment trials. Furthermore, seniors often have chronic health conditions, like diabetes or heart disease, which can make cancer treatment more challenging and complicated. Older adults also respond differently to treatment. For example, they may not be able to tolerate certain types or levels of chemotherapy. On the other hand, some cancers in the senior population grow more slowly, such as breast and prostate. Your doctor will take into account your age, type of cancer, if the disease has spread, the options and risks/benefits of treatment, and your overall health at the time of diagnosis. Physicians will also listen to your treatment goals–which may be different from a younger person.


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