Breast cancer continues to be the most common cancer among women in North America. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2013, there will be over 232,000 diagnosed cases of invasive breast cancer among women in the U.S, with just over 39,000 breast cancer cases being fatal. Breast cancer is the presence of a malignant tumor that initially appears in the breast’s cells. The tumor can eventually grow to invade surrounding tissues, or possibly to other areas of the body. Unfortunately, with age comes a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer—the majority of cases are seen in women over the age of 45.
A recent health breakthrough has revealed what could possibly be one of the most significant advances in understanding how age affects breast cancer. The study revealed that as we get older, our bodies experience an increase in stem cells called “multipotent progenitors”, which could be a contributing cause of breast cancer. Aging also causes a decline in “myoepithelial cells,” which are thought to suppress tumors. In simpler terms, aging produces more cells that heighten your risk of breast cancer, while producing fewer cells that protect against it.
This is a significant advancement in the study of breast cancer. Until now, the medical community has managed to develop a fairly solid understanding of what types of biological changes can affect an individual’s risk level. What they haven’t been able to effectively explain is the function of underlying cellular mechanisms. But this discovery is changing that. The research is a critical stepping-stone in understanding how age and breast cancer are interconnected. This also brings us one step closer to being able to treat, and hopefully prevent, the prevalence of breast cancer in aging women.
Breast cancer research is continuously evolving, but there are also certain things that you can do to help keep your health in check. Start by cutting down on frequent alcohol consumption—women who have two to five drinks a day are 1.5 times more at risk of developing breast cancer than those who don’t drink at all.
Exercise can also impact your breast cancer risk. The Women’s Health Initiative conducted a study and found that doing as little as 1.25 hours of physical activity a week can lower the risk by up to 18%.
Weight has also been identified as a potential risk factor, especially after menopause. When your ovaries stop producing estrogen, the hormone ends up coming from fat tissue. More fat tissue means more estrogen is being produced, and higher levels of estrogen have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Overweight women also usually have a higher insulin level, which is believed to be another contributing factor.
Knowing the risk factors is only part of the equation. Many women can have several of the identified risks but never contract it, while others can show no obvious risks and end up with a positive diagnosis. Your best protection against breast cancer is awareness: know what to look for. Women of all ages should ideally conduct regular breast examinations, but because the risk increases with age, it’s especially important for older women.