Demographic Timebomb: Boomer Cancer by the Numbers

The sheer number of baby boomers—there are about 79 million of us in the U.S.—has impacted every aspect of American society, much for the better, some for the worse.  Now, cancer is about to impact aging boomers—a lot.

Radiation oncologist Benjamin Smith of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, published a study in 2009 that projects a 45% overall increase in cancer cases between 2010 and 2030 (when the last boomers born in 1964 start turning 65).  This means that, by 2030, 2.3 million people in the U.S. will be living with a cancer diagnosis, compared to about 1.6 million in 2010.  Baby boomers are not the only cause for this drastic increase in disease—the rising number of racial and ethnic minorities is the other major variable—but the aging boomer population is the most significant factor in this projected escalation of cancer in our country.

The Aging of the United States Population

Smith predicts that, in the year 2030, 70% of total cancer cases (1.6 million) will be diagnosed in older Americans (65 and up), an increase from 60% in 2010.  Prostate, breast, lung, and colorectal cancers will continue to dominate. These projections for 2030 translate into 382,000 cases of prostate cancer, 361,000 cases of breast cancer, 338,000 of lung cancer, and 258,000 of colorectal cancer. The represents more than a 50% growth in diagnoses for patients 65 years or older, which, by the year 2030, will include the entire baby boomer generation.

Worse, the study forecasts higher growth rates of deadlier cancers driven both by minorities and aging boomers. “Certain cancer sites with particularly high mortality rates, such as liver, stomach, pancreas, and lung, will be among those with the greatest relative increase in incidence.”  More depressingly, “unless substantial improvements in cancer therapy and/or prevention strategies emerge, the number of cancer deaths may also grow dramatically over the next 20 years.”

There is a financial cost to this as well, which will take its toll on individuals, the medical infrastructure, and society as a whole.

These forecasts are based on current rates of diagnoses, the size of the aging population (we boomers), and the growth of minority population in the U.S.  Cancer prevention efforts—such as reducing rates of cigarette smoking, improving diet and exercise practices, and limiting carcinogens in the environment—will probably decrease these projected numbers a bit. The ongoing investment in cancer research will continue to produce treatments that should help to reduce the mortality rates as well.

But the sheer size of the aging baby boomer generation remains the biggest, unsolved challenge for American society.

What do you think we aging boomers can do to lessen our impact on the cancer treatment infrastructure in the US?

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