We’re just a few short days away from the beginning of spring. Soon you’ll be spending more time outdoors and, before you know it, it’ll be summer again. If you’re middle aged and like to spend a lot of time in the sun exercising, playing sports, working around your home, you’ll want to know about new research out of the Mayo Clinic that I’ve come across. It reveals your increased risk for developing skin cancer – especially if you’re a female.
Skin Cancer Increase in Middle Age – Women at High Risk
For a long time, people have had the belief that suntans make you look healthier. Some people even believe that it makes you look more successful. The funny thing about suntans is that we didn’t always consider having a dark tan a status symbol. According to The History of the Suntan, prior to the late 1940’s, people equated suntans with the lower working classes who did all the hard, physical labor all day in the hot summer sun.
Non-suntanned skin, the paler the better, meant that you likely were a member of the middle or upper class who didn’t have to do outdoor manual labor. You were either well off financially or didn’t have to work, or you had a job indoors at a desk, or doing skilled labor in a factory.
After WWII, the bikini was created and Hollywood movies started showing glamorous movie stars lounging around swimming pools, or on the beach, getting very tan. The suntan’s image quickly elevated to a status symbol that said you had the time and money to lead a life of leisure at the beach, or a hotel pool, or your own. Yet, all of these are just stereotypes. A suntan as a status symbol, or reflection of health, is just plain false.
The truth is, pursuing a “chronic” tan is probably one of the worst things you can do for your health. Spending too much time deliberately tanning in the sun, tanning beds and booths, can put you at increased risk for developing a deadly skin cancer – melanoma – and other skin cancers. Melanoma affects about 75,000 Americans every year and takes about 9,000 lives yearly.
Since the appearance of tanning beds and booths about 20-30 years ago, researchers have found that skin cancer rates have dramatically increased – especially in middle-aged women. Until the Mayo Clinic study, no one had previously looked at what age groups may be more at risk than others. Now we have a better idea.
It’s not like we had no clue that tanning booths and beds could be hazardous to your health. About 3 years ago in 2011, The American Association for Cancer Research reported that about 10% of all Americans use tanning booths and beds. And, that your risk for skin cancer increases by 15% for every 4 visits you make to a sun-tanning spa. After 8 visits, you’ve upped your risk to 30% – that’s a pretty big risk.
In the Mayo Clinic study, a population-based study was done by researchers. They re-analyzed data out of skin cancer records in the Mayo Clinic’s Rochester Epidemiology Project. This project allowed doctors and researchers to study health conditions in the community. They found that middle-aged people – age 40 through 60 – had an increased incidence of skin cancer in men by 4.5 times. But, shockingly, the rates for middle-aged women – between 40 and 50 – were about 6 times more than that at 24 times!
Why are middle-aged women more susceptible to developing skin cancer?
For one thing middle-aged (as well as younger) women use sun tanning beds and booths frequently for the cosmetic reasons I mentioned earlier. They feel it makes them look healthier and more attractive. In the decade between 1980 and 1990, the use of sun tanning beds and booths was widespread. As a result, occurrence of melanoma in the years 2000 to 2009 dramatically increased with more women getting the condition than men.
Boston University School of Medicine researchers have expressed concerns, and warnings, which I agree with, about the rise in risk for several types of skin cancer. They even tried to pass legislation regulating the use of tanning beds and booths. But their efforts were fought by strong lobbyists for the tanning bed industry – despite the research evidence that your risk for developing skin cancer from using them increases dramatically.
However, in April 2013, New Jersey did successfully ban the use of tanning beds/booths in minors under age 17. In addition to middle-aged women at high risk, the Mayo Clinic study also found a dramatic increase in skin cancer in 18 to 39 year-olds. The team is also continuing to track the occurrence of different types of skin cancer in people over age 60.
You Can Prevent Skin Cancer At Any Age
My colleagues and I here at Healthy Answers always try to impress on you, our readers, that the best way to treat a disease is to prevent it. Skin cancer – in all its types – can be prevented. Here are the ways that have been proven to work:
1. Stop using tanning beds and/or booths. These devices concentrate UV rays at a close range that can really damage your skin and set you up for developing skin cancer.
2. Wear sunscreen/cover-ups. Use sunscreen of at least SPF 15 but 20-30 is preferable, especially in southern, or southwest, high intensity-sun environments. Wear a hat with a wide brim, light colored clothes that deflect the sun. Eating carotenoid (beta carotenes), and Vitamin C, rich foods also help protect your skin against damaging UV rays. These include tomato paste, pink/red grapefruit, and watermelon.
3. Know your skin. Check yourself out full length after getting out of the shower or bath. Note any moles, skin tags, etc. The more you know how your skin looks normally, if something does show up, you’ll know that it’s different and will get into your doctor faster.
4. Yearly check ups. Just as you have a physical examination every year, you should also include a dermatologist check of your entire skin. These combined with regular self-exams can find any suspicious problems early before they have a chance to spread.
While you need adequate sun exposure for your body to make Vitamin D – about 15 minutes a day in high noon sun – spending too much time in the sun can put you at high risk for developing skin cancer. This risk, as the Mayo Clinic and other research shows, increases dramatically in middle age – especially in women, but men are at increased risk also.
If you have children, or grandchildren, particularly females, who are always chasing a tan because they think it makes them look more attractive, you’ll want to warn them that skin cancer is not just a disease of the middle-age and older. The occurrence of melanoma in younger age groups is climbing steadily as well.
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.