Anyone who has survived cancer as a child has his whole life ahead of them. One would think that the worst is behind them. A new study has shown that over time, that is not the case. Adults who survived childhood cancer are facing a new health challenge: premature aging. As more survivors reach their 30s and 40s, researchers are noticing health problems more common to much older people, such as frailty and serious memory impairment. These are problems that were not anticipated since the survival rate of cancer today is much greater than 20 years ago.
Cancer researchers first noticed premature aging in younger survivors because the aging is more dramatic in someone younger individuals. These studies were being performed now that a growing number of childhood-cancer patients are now adults. Keep in mind that it takes a long time to notice trends from cancer treatments. Researchers now have access to all this information to determine what happens after cancer. St. Jude researchers reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology that adult survivors of childhood cancer are far more likely than other people their age to be frail, with slow walking speed, low muscle mass and weakness more common to people decades older. The question becomes is it because of cancer or the chemotherapy treatment?
What is the Cause?
Now the search is on for the cause of the premature aging. The initial focus was on the treatment the survivors received at a time when their brains and other organs were developing. Keep in mind that chemotherapy destroys all living tissue whether it is healthy or not. As an example, children who had acute lymphoblastic leukemia and were treated with high doses of radiation to the brain are showing signs of brain changes and memory problems comparable to people who are 70. The treatment that saved their lives caused an injury to their brain. Sometimes as they say that the cure is as bad as the disease. This has led to doctors scale back some treatment options for patients.
The concerns over radiation therapy have led to efforts to use lower doses of medicine and avoid radiation when possible. Then there is always the thought that genetic or other factors also may make some survivors more susceptible to premature aging. There were studies performed of younger women with breast cancer. Some patients had lower-than-expected cognitive function based on age, occupation and education before beginning any treatment. So one has to wonder that the cancer itself may also be implicated in the development of the cognitive problems and the accelerated aging. So was it the cancer? I guess more research needs to be done.
New studies are under way in people diagnosed with cancer in their 60s, and some of these survivors also seem to be at risk for accelerated aging. The biology of cancer and the biology of aging are linked together in complicated ways. Understanding that link will help develop cures and reduce side effects. It makes sense that the cancer itself or the genetic susceptibility to cancer may also influence how one ages. Other researchers are examining childhood cancer survivors who show signs of cognitive issues. A recent study was performed in which they gave young survivors standard memory tests and magnetic resonance imaging, similar to the diagnostics used for people at risk for Alzheimer’s. The survivors resembled people with mild cognitive impairment. They could hold down jobs and have normal social interactions, but the worry was the problems would progress to early-onset memory loss and dementia.
Is surviving cancer still worth it?