Cancer deaths plummet in middle aged people


Fewer middle-aged people are dying from cancer in the UK than at any point over the last 25 years, new research shows.

Published in the British Medical Journal and conducted by researchers at the University of Leeds, University College London and Public Health Scotland for Cancer Research UK, this major study examines trends in cancer incidence and mortality amongst people aged 35 to 69 in the UK between 1993 to 2018. Researchers said that analysing trends in this age group helps to indicate future patterns of cancer in older patients.

The study showed that overall, mortality rates had dropped by 37% in men and 33% in women. In examining data for 23 cancer types, it also found that cervical cancer mortality rates decreased by 54.3%. This shows how the HPV vaccine combined with cervical screening has helped to prevent cancer and stop the disease in its tracks.

We clearly see dramatic decreases in the death rates from cancer. This indicates successes in cancer treatment, screening and prevention policies.

Professor David Forman, School of Medicine

The study also revealed that lung cancer mortality rates decreased by 53.2% in men and by 20.7% in women, thanks to reduced smoking rates in recent decades. And deaths have also dropped in breast, bowel and cervical cancers, showing how screening programmes help to save lives by diagnosing cancer earlier.

Whilst progress is to be welcomed, cancer cases are on the rise overall – this is largely due to a growing population and lifestyle factors impacting people’s cancer risk. The data highlights that cancer cases rose by 57% in men and 48% in women over the 25 years. This trend will result in challenges for cancer patients, the UK’s health system and the economy.  

Researchers also found year-on-year increases in cases of melanoma, liver, oral and kidney cancers. And death rates for liver, oral and uterine cancers - all linked to risk factors including UV exposure, alcohol, overweight and obesity, and smoking - are not improving fast enough.

There is an immense challenge ahead to maintain progress, with cancer waiting times hitting record highs in all UK nations and NHS staff under extreme pressure. 

Treatment successes

David Forman, visiting Professor of Epidemiology in Leeds' School of Medicine, said: "This study was designed to look at the rates at which middle-aged people across the UK develop and die from cancer over the 25 years leading up to the Covid pandemic. We clearly see dramatic decreases in the death rates from cancer in both men and women - 37% and 33% declines between 1993 and 2018 respectively. This indicates successes in cancer treatment, screening and prevention policies, especially in reducing smoking rates.

“There is, in contrast, a modest increase in the rates at which people are being diagnosed with cancer over the same time period and the increases in some specific types of cancer, such as skin melanoma, oral, liver and kidney, are of particular concern.

"People should be aware of the signs and symptoms of these cancers, as early diagnosis drastically improves survival rates, while making lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking, using sun protection and improving oral health can help prevent cancer from developing." 

Bold action

Cancer Research UK’s Head of Cancer Intelligence and lead author of the study, Jon Shelton, said: “This study helps us to see the progress we’ve made in beating cancer and where challenges clearly remain. With cancer cases on the rise and improvements in survival slowing, it’s vital that the UK Government takes bold action to keep momentum up. Now is the time to go further and faster, building on the successes of decades of research and improvements in healthcare.

“This research is a useful benchmarking tool for the next 25 years and beyond so that we can take action to save more lives from cancer. We must continue to prevent as many cancer cases as possible, diagnose cancers sooner and develop kinder treatments.”

The charity said that the findings highlight where the UK Government can focus its efforts to help to save more lives from cancer, as well as the steps people can take to reduce their risk of the disease.

If action is taken against smoking, overweight and obesity and alcohol, nearly 37,000 cancer cases could be prevented by 2040 in the UK. Preventing ill health not only benefits cancer patients and their families, it also leads to huge gains for the economy and the NHS.

Cancer Research UK is also calling on the Government to diagnose more cancers earlier. Bowel cancer screening should be optimised to reduce inequalities in access and reach as many eligible people as possible. Targeted lung screening, which is being rolled out across England, will help to save lives from a cancer type that takes more lives than any other. It is vital that other UK nations follow suit to reach more at-risk people.

Defining health issue

Cancer Research UK’s Chief Executive, Michelle Mitchell, said: “This major study brings to life improvements that have been made to tackle cancer in recent decades. If we take lung cancer, for example, we can clearly see that reducing smoking prevalence saves lives. The UK Government can build on this success by raising the age of sale of tobacco and continuing to fund a world-leading programme of measures to help people who smoke quit. 

“But cancer is still a defining health issue in the UK that impacts nearly one in two people. People face long waits for vital tests and treatment and cancer cases are on the rise. Cancer patients won’t feel the full benefits of advances in research breakthroughs and innovation, including new cancer treatments, without a long-term plan and funding from the UK Government.”

Cancer Research UK is urging political leaders to deliver long-term cancer strategies in all UK nations, including a National Cancer Council in England to drive cross-government action on cancer.  It said the UK Government must invest in new technologies and treatments for patients and innovation and reform must be backed by sufficient funding, staff and equipment. 

Further information

25 year trends in cancer incidence and mortality among adults aged 35-69 years in the UK, 1993-2018: retrospective secondary analysis was published in The BMJ on 13 March 2024.

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