Why everyone seems to have cancer

George Johnson wrote a few weeks ago in the New York Times on why everyone seems to have cancer. This is, somewhat paradoxically, good news – or at least not bad news. A larger proportion of people are dying of cancer now than in the past not because we’re getting worse at treating cancer – we’re actually getting better. But we’re getting better at treating other things (like heart disease) faster. See the graph on p. 10 of this CDC report on 2010 death statistics. Rates of death from complications of Alzheimer’s disease are actually increasing – and Alzheimer’s is even more of a disease of old age than cancer is.

This reminds me from a fact about cancer I learned from John Allen Paulos’s book Beyond Numeracy (1992), from a chapter explaining why correlation is not causation:

Nations that add fluoride to their water have a higher cancer rate than those that don’t. … Is fluoridation a plot? … [T]hose nations that add fluoride to their water are generally wealthier and more health-conscious, and thus a greater percentage of their citizens live long enough to develop cancer, which is, to a large extent, a disease of old age.

If we do cure cancer – which is a disease of old age because it essentially is due to accumulated errors in cell mutations – will we just find something that’s a disease of even older age?


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