Skin cancer in older people can go unnoticed – men are especially at risk

In a new study by the University of Oulu, previously unidentified skin cancers or their early stages were found in one in four people aged 70 or over. In older people, the risk of skin cancer was particularly increased by the male gender and a history of skin cancer. According to the researchers, the accumulation of information on the risk factors for skin cancer can help in targeting the screening of skin cancer in the future.

The study is part of the extensive Northern Finland Birth Cohorts study, and all the parents of persons belonging to the 1966 birth cohort who lived in the Oulu region at the time of the study were invited. A total of 552 people aged 70–92 years participated in the skin study. They participated in a comprehensive health survey in which the dermatologist performed a thorough skin examination.

In one in four participants, previously unidentified skin cancer or an early stage of skin cancer was found. The incidence of skin cancer was higher in men and in those who had already contracted skin cancer in the past. 16 per cent of the patients received the first skin cancer diagnosis of their lives.

“Our research revealed that skin cancer in older people can easily go unnoticed,” says Suvi-Päivikki Sinikumpu, Specialist in Dermatology and Allergology, who was one of the two head researchers.

Regular, professional inspection of the entire skin is important for older people, Sinikumpu emphasises. “Many people, for example, get dental examinations every year. The skin should also be checked regularly. In addition, we should talk even more about the risk factors of skin cancer and skin protection.”

Skin cancers continue to increase, which will be an ever-increasing challenge as the population ages. More information is needed on the predisposing factors for skin cancer. Therefore, population-level research data on the risk factors for skin cancer in older people is welcome. “Most of the previous studies have focused on a select group, such as patients with a particular disease, and their results may not be very well applicable to the older population in general,” Sinikumpu points out.

The most common malignant skin tumours are squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma. If skin cancer is detected early enough, it can usually be treated more effectively and the patient’s prognosis is better.

According to the Finnish Cancer Registry, approximately 3 500 new skin cancers are diagnosed each year in Finland. The number includes skin melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma of the skin, as well as other skin cancers. In addition, approximately 10 000 basal cell carcinomas were registered last year.

Research article: Sinikumpu, SP., Jokelainen, J., Keinänen-Kiukaanniemi, S. et al. Skin cancers and their risk factors in older persons: a population-based study. BMC Geriatr 22, 269 (2022).

Last updated: 21.4.2022