Cancer Treatment for the Elderly: No Single Treatment

In the U.S., the number of citizens over the age of 65 will double between 2000 and 2050 as individuals live longer due to improvements in medicine. Who will care for this group is still a question mark, as the proportion of the population over age 65 will double from just over 10 percent to a minimum of 20 percent of the overall population.

Baby Boomers, Heart Disease and Cancer

In addition to age-related diseases like cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s Disease, a concern regarding the incidence of cancer in the aging Baby Boomer population stands in stark contrast to the greater longevity expected to be enjoyed by this demographic. As published in the Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association, “the incidence of cancer in those over 65 is 10 times greater than in those younger than 65,” and the death rate from cancer is 16 times higher in those over the age of 65. Indeed, as the authors of the study noted, “the graying demographics […] and the fact that cancer […] rises exponentially in the final decades of life, suggests that cancer may soon replace heart disease as the leading cause of death” in the U.S.

No Easy Answers

Cancer often occurs in the elderly and is more likely to kill more of those whom it affects. Even rare cancers develop for as yet unknown reasons. What is not known is how to treat the elderly, when the practice of geriatric medicine now might encompass three or more decades, or from age 65 to 95 (or older). Without advocates for aggressive treatments by themselves or their families, the elderly have been found to receive less aggressive cancer care as their physicians tend to fall back to a patient’s age to determine what treatment to prescribe.

At one time, a patient’s chronological age might be enough to determine whether or not he was even referred to an oncologist for chemotherapy. Now, markedly different patterns of aging are forcing physicians to differentiate between an “old 65” and a “very young 86.” These patterns can be determined by the patient’s expectations, co-morbid diseases, medical history, social support system, and even the side effects of necessary medications.

A Cure or Control?

Based upon some of these factors, physicians attempt to tailor patients’ cancer treatments based on the patient’s lives and their individual wishes. The majority of elderly cancer patients want their disease to be treated aggressively, according to studies. For cancer patients who are otherwise in good health, aggressive surgery, radiation or chemotherapy may involve little or no adjustment related to their age.

Other patients with co-morbid conditions that limit their energy or ability to withstand certain drugs might require less physically taxing innovative cancer treatments. Elderly chondrosarcoma patients, for instance, may be treated with a specialized form of radiation known as proton therapy instead of a leg amputation and ordinary radiation. Their cancer may be controlled by the more accurate proton therapy without having to undergo significant post-operative physical therapy or the side effects of traditional radiation therapy.

As the Baby Boomer generation enters this new stage in their lives, there will undoubtedly be great strides made in the treatment of various illnesses, including cancer. Whereas the elderly demographic may have once been considered a relatively minor portion of the populace, this will change as the years go by, necessitating much-needed advances in science.

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