Every year, about two million people die of cancer, which is the world’s leading cause of death. Or if you’re American, it’s the second. Heart disease, which has the same numbers, kills a bit less than half as many people. This makes cancer the leading cause of death in the developed world, which is where it has traditionally been due to an increase in exposure to unhealthy lifestyles, poor diet and tobacco use.
Polluted water, poor diet and pollution also contribute to heart disease. What’s surprising is that cancer accounts for just 1% of the deaths from disease in the Americas. The high rates of disease and death are due in part to the population’s being older and sicker than in the past. But the situation isn’t much better for people in China and India, where cancer rates are twice those in the US and Europe.
Cancer is essentially a killer disease of ageing, which means the longer you live, the more of it you’re likely to get. And, in many cases, the way you live becomes worse over time. For example, a person’s chance of getting breast cancer at any age increases with age – there’s a dramatic difference in risk between men and women. I talk about the changing landscape of cancer for female biology in this whole issue.
But as humanity ages, we have plenty of ways to extend life; we’re just not doing it.