The legacy of the 1960s package holiday boom and the modern vogue for tanned complexions mean pensioners are now seven times more likely to get the most dangerous type of skin cancer than 40 years ago, new figures have revealed.
Older men are 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with malignant melanoma than their parents’ generation and women are five times more likely.
Cancer Research UK, which compiled the figures, said the huge increase was likely to be a consequence of British people having greater access to sunny climes since the cost of a holiday abroad dropped significantly in the 1960s.
According to the most recent figures, 5,700 over-65s are now diagnosed with melanoma in the UK every year – compared to only 600 in the mid-1970s.
Age is a risk factor for skin cancer and, as with all cancers, part of the reason for the increase in incidence is that people are simply living longer.
However, the scale of the change in skin cancer rates indicates that a change in our attitude to tanning and the desirability of darker skin tones are also factors.
Cancer Research UK said that getting sunburnt just once every two years could triple the risk of malignant melanoma.
Professor Richard Marais, a skin cancer expert at the charity’s Manchester Institute, said the increased rate of melanoma was a “worrying” trend.
“It’s very important for people to take care of their skin in the sun. It’s also important for them to keep an eye on their skin and seek medical opinion if they see any changes to their moles, or even to normal areas of skin,” he said. “Melanoma is often detected on men’s backs and women’s legs but can appear on any part of the body.”
There are two main types of skin cancer, melanoma and non-melanoma. Both are linked with overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation but melanoma skin cancers, which are characterised by the appearance of a new mole or change to an existing one, are more dangerous.
More than 13,300 people are diagnosed each year. Survival rates are now good, with nearly 90 per cent of patients living for 10 years or more. However the condition still leads to around 2,100 deaths each year.
Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s head of health information, said: “Many cases of malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, are preventable by taking precautions in the sun and making sure you don’t burn.
“Sun damage accumulates over time so avoiding sunburn – and sunbeds – is key as well as getting to know your skin type so you don’t overdo it on the beach or even in the garden. You can burn at home just as easily as you can on holiday, so remember to spend time in the shade, wear a T shirt and a hat to protect your skin and regularly apply sunscreen that is at least Factor 15 and has four stars. Swapping bad sun habits for good ones could save your life.”
Sue Deans, a 69-year-old retired teacher and mother of three, who was first diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 2000, said that the older generation had not been as aware of the dangers of getting sunburnt.
“I was part of the generation where package holidays became affordable and you could go abroad nearly every year,” she said. “I don’t think there was much understanding at the time about the impact that too much sun can have on your risk of getting skin cancer.”