Human cancer is primarily an age-related disease that strikes when an individual is 50 years of age or older. The age of the individual and the time element are important largely because the formation of a tumor is a multistep process that takes many years to complete. There are, however, many exceptions to this relationship. Lung cancer, brought on by cigarette smoke, and childhood leukemias are the most notable examples. The chemicals in cigarette smoke are known to accelerate this process, but the factors responsible for cancer acceleration in children are still unclear.
Cancers are age-related because our cells change with time, becoming more susceptible to genetic damage and less capable of dealing with the damage when it does occur. Much of this problem is believed to be due to a reduction in the ability of our immune system to track down and destroy abnormal cells as they appear, giving those cells time to evolve into a potentially lethal cancer.
The increased incidence of cancer as we approach our sixth decade is also coincidental with the onset of sexual senescence in both men and women. It is possible that the hormonal changes that occur during this period contribute to older adults' increased susceptibility to cancer. Age-related hormonal changes include a shift in the ratio of estrogen to testosterone (ET ratio) in both men and women. Young women naturally have a high estrogen/testosterone ratio (a lot of estrogen, very little testosterone), whereas young men have a low estrogen/testosterone ratio (very little estrogen, a lot of testosterone). Estrogen levels drop dramatically in women after menopause, and men show a similar decline in the level of testosterone at a corresponding age. As a consequence, men and women approach a similar ET ratio throughout their sixth to ninth decades, a condition that is thought to influence the rate at which genetic instability occurs. In addition, many scientists believe the shift in the ET ratio is largely responsible for the weakening of the human immune system, leading to the increased occurrence not only of cancer but of many other diseases as well.
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