Protecting seniors against skin cancer

Sunrise Senior Living  |  June 30, 2017
Seniors are still at risk from the negative effects of the sun.

Most people know how important it is to keep young kids protected from the sun in the summer. 

Research has shown that too much exposure to UV rays during youth can lead to serious health complications as people get older, including skin cancer. Sunscreen ads often target parents of small children, emphasizing the importance of keeping kids protected from the harsh sun rays.

Children aren't the only demographic at risk, however. Though some cases of skin cancer can take many years to form, it can also act quickly, impacting people of any age. Because of the misconceptions that skin cancer takes time to appear, many seniors aren't taking the necessary precautions to limit their risks of developing the condition in their golden years. 

"Sun damage is cumulative over a persons lifetime."

Risks of skin cancer for seniors
Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Dermatology, with an average of 1 in 5 people expected to develop the condition in their lifetimes. While it may be treated and eliminated when it's caught early, some types of skin cancer can be fatal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that more than 9,000 people died of skin melanomas in 2014, the most lethal form of the cancer.

Exposure to UV rays, whether from the sun or tanning beds, dramatically increases the risks for skin cancer development. Sunburns are particularly dangerous, as it takes just one to five blistering sunburns before a person reaches their 20s to increase the chances of getting this cancer by 50 to 80 percent. 

However, the Skin Cancer Foundation reports that sun damage is cumulative over a person's lifetime. At age 40, the average person has received 47 percent of their cumulative sun damage. By age 60, it jumps to 100 percent. Though bad burns and sun exposure in childhood can dramatically impact skin cells in the future, older adults are compounding onto an existing problem when they soak up too many UV rays. 

In addition to the increased exposure from living a longer, the SCF explains that seniors are even more vulnerable because they have diminished defenses against skin cancer. Immune systems get weaker, healing capacity is reduced and skin gets more fragile and thinner as people age. That means that older adults are more susceptible to fast-acting skin damage from the sun's radiation. 

Research shows that men are more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer in older age than women. The AAD reports that while women under 40 have higher rates of skin cancer than men of the same age, by age 50 men are significant more likely to develop the cancer. By age 80, the rate for men developing skin cancer is three times the rate for women. Caucasians are also more likely to have skin cancer than any other race, but it's important to note that any person from any demographic could potentially develop this dangerous disease.

Just one to five bad sunburns in your life can dramatically increase skin cancer development.Just one to five bad sunburns in your life can dramatically increase skin cancer development.

How seniors can protect themselves from skin cancer
The best way to prevent or delay the development of skin cancer is to limit your exposure to harmful UV rays. The American Cancer Society specifies that there are two main types of UV radiation to be aware of:

  • UVA rays cause skin cells to age more rapidly, leading to wrinkles and contributing to the development of some forms of skin cancer. They are the most common type of ray used in tanning beds.
  • UVB rays are stronger than UVA rays, and can directly alter skin cell DNA. They are the main cause of sunburns and skin cancer.

Both rays permeate the atmosphere through sunlight.

To stop the harmful effects of these rays, seniors should first aim to avoid spending too much time in direct sunlight, and should stay away from tanning beds entirely. UV rays are strongest from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., so avoiding lots of outdoor activities during these peak hours will limit risks. Aim to garden or mow the lawn in the morning, or go for a walk after dinner instead of during midday.

Of course, avoiding the sun entirely isn't a practical solution. When you do need to spend extended periods of time outside during the day, you should protect your skin. Wear light weight, long-sleeved shirts, hats with wide brims and UV-blocking sunglasses. 

Sunscreen is essential any time you plan to go outdoors during the day. Though rays are strongest on sunny summer days, even when it's overcast or the middle of winter, you could still be at risk from this radiation. In fact, the ACS states that some cloud coverage can actually reflect UV rays and make them stronger. 

Sunscreens are rated with an SPF number - a Sun Protection Factor. The higher the SPF, the more UV rays are filtered out before they are absorbed into the skin. SPF 30 can filter 97 percent of UVB rays, while 50 can stop 98 percent. Most sunscreens only protect against UVB rays, but some brands will also target UVA. These are usually classified as broad-spectrum sunscreens. Just check the labels to see how much coverage a particular formula will offer. 

You should use about 1 ounce of sunscreen with each application, the SCF advises, and you should reapply it every two hours that you're in the sun. It's best to apply it at least 30 minutes before going outside to give it time to absorb properly. 

Protecting your skin from the sun with hats, sunglasses and sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher can reduce your risks of skin cancer. Protecting your skin from the sun with hats, sunglasses and sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher can reduce your risks of skin cancer.

Checking for skin cancer
When skin cancer does form, the key to effective treatment is to catch it early. You can perform self-checks at home to look for some of the most noticeable signs of skin cancer, which include:

  • Moles that change in shape, size or color.
  • Skin lesions or sores that don't heal.
  • New growths on your skin.
  • Spots that are a different color or shape than other markings on your skin.
  • Growths that are itchy or bleeding.

If you notice any moles or growths, keep an eye on them with regular visual exams and note if they start to charge. If they do, you should contact your doctor immediately. Yearly exams with your dermatologist can give you more in-depth screenings, and are especially recommended for people who have had cancerous or pre-cancerous spots before.

When detected and treated early, melanoma has a 98 percent survival rate. Late-stage melanoma, on the other hand, has an 18 percent survival rate, according to the AAD. Treatments options can range from micrographic or excisional  surgery for removing an early-stage cancerous growth to topical creams to radiation therapy for late-stage skin cancer. 

Though skin cancer is common, it doesn't have to be unavoidable. Take the necessary precautions to prevent this disease from forming, and be sure to regularly check your skin or talk to your doctor about ways to screen for skin cancer so it can be caught and stopped early.

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