A new study reveals an alarming rise over time in melanoma among people aged 18 to 39. Rates of this potentially deadly skin cancer have climbed by 800 percent among young women and 400 percent among young men in the past 40 years. Researchers reviewed data on the 256 young adults in Olmstead County, MN, who were diagnosed with melanoma between 1970 and 2009. Just 16 of them, or 4.8 cases per 100,000 people, were diagnosed in the decade between 1970 and 1979; in the decade ending in 2009, a whopping 129, or 30.8 cases per 100,000 people, were diagnosed. More than half of the total melanoma cases over those 40 years occurred in this latest decade alone.
Although lifetime risk of melanoma is about 1.5 times greater in males than in females, among young people this pattern is reversed, as this Mayo Clinic Proceedings study demonstrated. The authors believe that indoor ultraviolet (UV) tanning, much more popular among young women than young men, may account for the disproportionate increase in incidence among young women. UV rays emitted by tanning machines are cancer-causing, and indoor UV tanners are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never tanned indoors; those who tan indoors just four times a year increase their risk of developing melanoma by 11 percent. While the skyrocketing incidence figures are cause for major concern, the authors noted that death from the disease among young people is actually decreasing, due largely to earlier diagnosis. With more people aware of changes in their skin, and better diagnostic methods, melanomas are more frequently discovered at earlier stages, when they are easiest to treat.