By Jaimie Dalessio
People who smoke or drink heavily may develop pancreatic cancer at a younger age than those who don't, according to a recent study of 811 pancreatic cancer patients.
"If you do have these habits, and you're going to develop pancreatic cancer, the age of presentation may be younger," lead researcher Michelle A. Anderson, MD, from the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, told Reuters.
The average age at which pancreatic cancer is found is 72, according to the American Cancer Society. In Dr. Anderson's study, heavy smokers were diagnosed around age 62 and heavy drinkers at age 61 -- close to a decade earlier.
While smoking is a strong risk factor for pancreatic cancer, these findings, published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, only show that smokers and drinkers might develop pancreatic cancer earlier in life. They don't prove that such habits directly caused the cancer.
The study's significance lies in that it offers a clue to what age pancreatic cancer screenings should start -- that is, once widespread screening exists, Anderson told Reuters. Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect early and by the time a person has symptoms the cancer has often spread to other organs, according to the American Cancer Society. Currently, there are no tests that can easily find it in people without symptoms.
So how much boozing makes you a heavy drinker? Anderson defined it as about three or more drinks a day. For smokers, those who went through more than a pack per day received the "heavy" marker.
If you fall into either category, there's still time to quit or at least start to cut back. The researchers found that former smokers and drinkers who had kicked their habits 10 or more years before their diagnosis had no extra risk of developing pancreatic cancer earlier.