This year will see an unprecedented surge in the number of Americans becoming eligible for Medicare, as the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation begins to turn 65. This will spark a fundamental shift in the US population: Today, about 1 in 10 Americans are 65 and older; by the year 2030, according to the Alliance for Aging Research, that number will climb to 1 in 5. Experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) said today that these statistics paint a grim picture, because aging is the number one risk factor for cancer, and as the US population grows older, cancer incidence - and the costs associated with it - are expected to soar.

The cancer experts noted, however, that much of the cost, loss and suffering of cancer doesn't have to happen. They pointed to encouraging scientific evidence that many cancers can be delayed or even prevented through a good balance of "self-protection" which includes regular physical activity and a plant-based diet.

This is good news for many Americans who feel helpless about their personal cancer risk as they grow older. A survey commissioned by AICR shows that, among Americans over 50, awareness that many cancers are preventable is low, and feelings of powerlessness in the face of cancer increase steadily as age increases. This is why AICR has launched a new campaign, It's Never Too Late to Lower Your Risk, aimed at raising awareness among Americans over 50 and encouraging them to eat smart and move more.

The Aging-Cancer Link, By the Numbers

Starting this year, more than 10,000 Americans will turn 65 every day - some 3.5 million in 2011 alone. As the over-65 group takes up a greater and greater proportion of the population, the AICR expert said, a dramatic increase in US cancer incidence will result.

According to the latest estimates from the National Institutes of Health, nearly 4 in 5 cancers are diagnosed after age 55. By the time a man reaches age 70, his risk of invasive cancer is 27 times higher than it was when he was 39; a 70-year-old woman's risk is 13 times higher than it was when she was 39.

But new consumer research commissioned by AICR finds that 1 in 3 adults over age 50 are unaware of the link between aging and increased cancer risk, and many mistakenly believe it's too late for them to take action. This is why AICR has launched its campaign.

"We can't control our age, but we can control our cancer risk," said AICR Nutritionist Alice Bender, MS, RD., "That's what more and more research is showing, and that's what people of all ages, particularly those over 50, who bear the highest cancer risk, need to understand. Evidence from the lab and the clinic suggests that these Americans can significantly lower their risk. 'It's never too late' is good news for American worried about their cancer risk. We should take that to heart and feel empowered by it."

Mounting Research Shows It's Never Too Late

In a large cohort study begun in 1995, researchers tracked the lifestyle habits of half million Americans aged 50-71 over the course of 8 years. Those who engaged in physical activity of any intensity were found to have lowered their risk of colon cancer compared to sedentary individuals of the same age who were tracked over the same timespan. The study was published in 2008.

A 2009 study looked at five lifestyle factors (including diet, physical activity and weight) among 450,000 participants aged 50 to 71. The more healthy behaviors participants had, the more they lowered their risk of pancreatic cancer. In fact, those with most healthy behaviors had a 58 percent lower risk of pancreatic cancer than those with the least. The study was published in 2009.

While the population and clinical research mounts, evidence from the lab continues to map the molecular and genetic connections between aging and cancer. AICR grantee Dr. Trygve Tollefsbol of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, for example, has published several papers showing that components in green tea, broccoli and several other plant foods exhibit the ability to turn on and turn off genes that are directly related to both aging and the cancer process.

Meanhwhile, AICR's expert reports and research updates have gathered and interpreted data from thousands of studies and concluded that overall, about 1/3 of the most common cancers could be prevented by eating smart, moving more and staying lean. According to the AICR/WCRF policy report, these include: about one half of all colorectal cancers, 2 in 5 breast cancers and 7 out of 10 esophageal and endometrial cancers.

With these encouraging research findings AICR has launched a call-to-action, a new awareness campaign -- It's Never Too Late to Lower Your Risk -- which translates the latest evidence from laboratory research and clinical trials into small, practical, everyday changes and simple steps for those 50 and over. These steps include moving more and eating smart.

"Moving more doesn't mean running marathons - it means getting off the couch. Because when it comes to cancer, inactivity is the enemy," said AICR's Bender. "Eating smart doesn't mean becoming a vegetarian. It means learning how to shift the focus of meals off of meat and onto vegetables, whole grains, beans and fruit. And AICR can help with that.

Here, you'll find information and tools like planners and worksheets to help you start living for lower cancer risk. You can Choose Your Challenge, track your progress, and learn more about the science showing that "It's Never Too Late."

Survey: Many Older Americans Throw Up Their Hands; Need Information

The It's Never Too Late to Lower Your Risk campaign is the result of new research commissioned by AICR which finds limited understanding among older Americans of the link between age and increased cancer risk.

Involving 587 Americans aged 50 and older, the AICR survey found the majority of Americans aged 71 and over (51%) do not know that cancer risk increases with age. This compares with a third of Americans between ages 50 and 70 that do not know about the link between cancer and aging.

Even more troubling, the AICR survey finds that many older Americans think there is nothing they can do to reduce their cancer risk. According to the survey, approximately 1 in 5 Americans over 50 - 22% - agreed with the statement "It's too late for me to reduce my personal risk of cancer." Among Americans in the 71 and over age group, this figure was significantly higher: 32%.

"This paints a very clear picture of what we're facing," said AICR's Bender. "Thousands and thousands of Americans in this group don't realize what they can do to lower their cancer risk, and mistakenly believe it's too late for them anyway."

American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR)