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Why we need to take extra care in the sun over the age of 65

This summer in the UK has seen days of intense sun alternate with grey skies with startling rapidity. Whilst we might think we’re more at risk from long periods of unrelenting sun, it’s often when it is intermittent that we become more lax – and we cannot afford to be.

Approximately 13,300 people are diagnosed with malignant melanoma in the UK each year, making it the fifth most widespread cancer. It is also the second most common cancer in young adults (aged 15-34) and 2,100 people die from the disease each year. It is far from being a young person’s disease, however.

Recent figures released by Cancer Research UK have shown that people over 65 are seven times more likely to develop malignant melanoma than they were 40 years ago. On average, 5,700 UK pensioners are being diagnosed with melanoma each year, compared with around 600 in the 1970s, and older men are now ten times more likely to be diagnosed with life-threatening skin cancer than the previous generation. Older women are five times more likely.

It’s tempting, as we get older, to think we have reached a “safe zone” – that if it has not affected us by now, it’s not going to. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Cancer Research UK states simply: “Cancer is primarily a disease of older people, with incidence rates increasing with age for most cancers. More than a third (36% in the UK in 2009-2011) of cancers are diagnosed in people aged 75 and over.”

There are also specific reasons why skin cancer risk increases. First, damage to the skin is cumulative; the longer we live, the more sun and UV damage it sustains. If we have not taken precautions – and especially if we have suffered successive sunburns – then this can damage the skin’s DNA, pushing it closer each time to a cancerous state. Even in advanced age, one more bad sunburn can be the one that finally triggers it.

Per Hall, Clinical Director at Check4Cancer and a pioneer in the early detection of melanoma, explains: “Ageing of skin comes in two forms: intrinsic, which is the natural ageing of the skin associated with advancing years, and extrinsic, which refers to damage inflicted by environmental factors. Those factors include the sun and tanning beds, but also pollution, tobacco smoke and other conditions or agents that may compromise general health or our immune systems. As skin ages, it also becomes less effective at defending and repairing itself if damage does occur.

We can’t do much about intrinsic ageing, but we can protect ourselves against extrinsic factors. Most skin cancer is caused by UV exposure, which means it is also one of the easiest to prevent.

“The best advice is to minimise exposure to sunlight – especially between the hours of 11.00am and 3.00pm, when the radiation is strongest – and use high-factor sunscreen (eg SPF of 30, with good UVA protection) where skin exposure is unavoidable. Maintaining good general health also means you will have healthier skin, and lower your risk.

“Finally, examine yourself regularly, and be alert to any growth with an irregular border, which increases size or shows other signs of change. Persistent pain, irritation, itching, bleeding or crusting, or any new lesion appearing after age 40 should have further investigation. If you can get a full skin check – in which the whole skin surface, including areas you can’t access, are checked by an expert – all the better.”

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