Cancer survivors age faster, experience physical decline before others

ROCKVILLE, Md. — Surviving cancer is no small achievement, even with modern medicine continuing the increase the odds of someone beating the disease. Unfortunately, a new study finds that battle with cancer may be taking a serious toll on the body, especially in a person’s later years. Researchers with the National Cancer Institute in Maryland say people with a history of cancer are more likely to experience physical declines due to accelerated aging than healthy adults.

The new report matches up with a previous study which discovered that cancer treatments can age a patient’s cells by up to five years. In that study, scientists found radiation therapy quickens the pace of cellular aging. Patients who undergo these treatments tend to experience more fatigue and inflammation, increasing their risk of developing age-related diseases later on.

In the new report, researchers from the National Institute on Aging and the National Cancer Institute examined 1,728 adults between 22 and 100 years-old between 2006 and 2019. From that group, 359 had a history of cancer.

Cancer’s physical toll becomes greater with age

The team evaluated each person’s grip strength and the pace at which they normally walk (their gait) to measure the effects of aging. Results show those who survived cancer were 1.42 times more likely to display weaker gripping strength. For participants over the age of 65, those with a history of cancer were 1.61 times more likely to have a slower gait. Older cancer survivors also scored lower on additional tests of physical performance.

Study authors add that older participants with a history of cancer appear to experience steeper declines in their physical well-being as they age. Both their grip strength and gait speed become weaker and slower over the years in comparison to adults who never had the disease.

“Findings from our study add to the evidence that cancer and its treatment may have adverse effects on aging-related processes, putting cancer survivors at risk for accelerated functional decline,” says senior author Lisa Gallicchio, PhD, in a media release.

“Understanding which cancer survivors are at highest risk, and when the accelerated decline in physical functioning is most likely to begin, is important in developing interventions to prevent, mitigate, or reverse the adverse aging-related effects of cancer and its treatment.”

Previous studies find reducing inflammation in the body may play a key role in preventing premature aging. Inflammation has links to many ailments, including age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The study appears in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.