Signs of Mesothelioma in Seniors

Updated on August 5, 2022

Respiratory diseases in seniors are often more complicated to treat and manage as compared to those in younger people. Because the immune system weakens as we age, it’s important to watch for early signs of illness to provide the best care possible. Mesothelioma is a cancer that mainly affects those over 65. Read on to learn more about this disease and how to prevent it. 

Symptoms and Causes of Mesothelioma

In the US, mesothelioma is diagnosed in approximately 3,000 people annually. Mesothelioma affects the pleura, or lining, of organs in the body, most commonly in the lungs. Breathing asbestos, a highly carcinogenic material, can cause tumors to develop where the asbestos fibers embed themselves. The most common symptoms of mesothelioma include:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Fluid buildup (referred to as pleural effusion)

Early symptoms of mesothelioma are generally mild and often passed off as common respiratory illnesses like the flu or pneumonia. Because of the cancer’s latency period of 10-50 years, most people exposed to asbestos won’t experience symptoms for decades. This is why it’s important to know the risk factors of the disease and if you’ve potentially been exposed to asbestos in the past.

The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. Known for its heat resistance and durability, asbestos was heavily used as an additive throughout the early and mid 1900s to help strengthen building materials. Trade workers, such as those in construction and demolition, are some of the most at-risk groups due to the length of time spent around asbestos. Other high-risk groups include mechanics, machinists, and veterans.

Asbestos Exposure and Risk Factors

Today many countries have completely banned asbestos. In the US, up to one percent of products can contain the material, still leaving individuals susceptible to exposure. Similarly, those working in buildings or homes built before 1980 are likely to come into contact with asbestos present day. Once asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are disturbed or begin to deteriorate, tiny fibers are released into the air. This is how people are able to breathe in this material without knowing. Exposure can also happen in the home due to outdated materials, such as house siding, roofing, and tiling wearing down over time. 

Because the most common form of mesothelioma is found in the lungs, lifestyle factors can also influence a diagnosis. Cigarette smokers who are exposed to asbestos are much more likely to develop asbestos-related cancers versus non-smokers. The cilia (hair-like fibers) in the lungs naturally filtrate bacteria and particles that enter the body. Long-term smoking damages these cilia, which makes it harder to remove debris such as asbestos from the respiratory system. For those working in high-risk job fields, the National Cancer Institute advises that people who have experienced occupational exposure should not smoke or quit smoking to mitigate mesothelioma risk. 

Seniors and Mesothelioma

Due to the latency period of the disease, the average diagnosis age is between 65 and 74 years old. Mesothelioma is diagnosed in men at a much higher rate than women, likely due to the fact that more men were working in at-risk fields during the height of asbestos use. Depending on the diagnosed stage of mesothelioma, age, and overall health of the individual, doctors will create a personalized treatment plan for their patient.

Because mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer, the prognosis is poor, with an average of 18-31 months after initial diagnosis. Unfortunately, most mesothelioma cases aren’t diagnosed until an advanced stage, which is why the prognosis is so short. Treatment options may be limited because they’re so exhaustive on the body, especially if a patient has other health issues at the time of diagnosis. 

Like all cancers, the earlier it’s discovered, the better outcomes of treatment and quality of life. If you’re experiencing symptoms of mesothelioma and have worked in a high-risk field previously, have an open conversation with your doctor about testing for this cancer. Mesothelioma is the most extreme diagnosis, however there are other related diseases you may be suffering from because of asbestos exposure.

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