What Is the Average Age for a Lung Cancer Diagnosis?

The average age of diagnosis of lung cancer in the United States is about 70. The average has increased incrementally over the past 50 years, with the majority of cases still being diagnosed in the advanced stages when people are older. The median age for a diagnosis of lung cancer in the United States is 71, according to surveillance data released issued by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). From 1975 to 1999, the median age was 66.

Scientists tend to use the median rather than the average (mean) age when considering data, mainly because the median does a better job of accounting for an unbalanced distribution of ages.

Understanding the Data

Average age: All the ages added up and divided by the number of cases.

Median age: The midway point below which half of younger cases occur and above which half of the older cases occur.

While researchers can only derive solid conclusions from large data sets, let's use a lung cancer patient group of nine just as an example. The patients are 44, 52, 67, 70, 73, 76, 81, 82, and 85 years in age.

The average age of that group is just over 69; the median age is 72.

By using the median, it's clearer that the majority of the lung cancer cases are in people over age 70.

Doctor with radiological chest x-ray film for medical diagnosis on patient's health on asthma, lung disease and bone cancer illness
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Age of Women vs. Men

In most studies, the median age for lung cancer is slightly different for men and women. Women tend to develop lung cancer at a younger age than men by roughly two years. Women also are disproportionately affected by lung cancer before the age of 50, according to a 2018 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Between the ages of 30 and 54, women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with lung cancer, in part because of the earlier onset of symptoms.

Diagnoses in All Age Groups

The risk of lung cancer increases with age, peaking at age 75 and gradually decreasing thereafter—often because an older person will die of causes other than lung cancer.

The percentage of lung cancer cases by age group breaks down as follows, according to surveillance from the NCI:

Age Range % With Lung Cancer
Under 20 1%
20-34 2.7%
35-44 5.2%
45-54 14.1%
55 to 64 24.1%
65 to 74 25.4%
75 to 84 19.6%
85 and older 7.8%

Under Age 40

According to the American Cancer Society, most people diagnosed are at least 65 years old and few people are under age 45. Given this, many under age 40 who are diagnosed with lung cancer are especially caught off guard by the news.

It remains true that older adults make up the majority of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients, but research suggests that the rate of lung cancer in young adults is increasing—and often with no relationship at all to smoking.

According to research published in the Journal of Cancer, over 70% of 8,734 young people with lung cancer were non-smokers and roughly half of those had never touched a cigarette in their lives.

Genetics is believed to contribute to the risk of lung cancer, with as many as 59% of young affected adults having a genetic mutation associated with the disease. These include EGFR mutations, ROS1 rearrangements, and ALK rearrangements.

Because lung cancer is not generally expected in younger people, it is often missed until stage 4  when the malignancy has metastasized (spread). Even so, people under 40 who are treated for lung cancer will often do better because they can be treated more aggressively. This includes the use of newer targeted therapies that can identify and kill tumors with specific EGFR, ROS1, or ALK mutations.

Because of this, younger people tend to live longer than older adults with the disease, even if they are diagnosed with advanced cancer. The current research suggests that the five-year survival rate of young adults with all stages of lung cancer is 54%, while the five-year survival rate of all people with lung cancer is 16%.

While there are many excellent organizations to reach out to if you have lung cancer, the Bonnie Addario Lung Cancer Foundation is dedicated to assisting young people with the plethora of health and social concerns related to a lung cancer diagnosis.

Over Age 70

One of the common myths of lung cancer is that people over 70 are unable to tolerate aggressive treatments and invariably do worse than adults in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.

While it is true that most of the lung cancer-related deaths occur later in life, age alone cannot predict how well or poorly you respond to treatment. Beyond the stage and grade of cancer, a person's performance status⁠—namely how well they perform normal, everyday tasks while on treatment⁠—is a key factor that doctors will look at when selecting the appropriate lung cancer cancer therapy.

Studies have shown that adults over 80 with a good performance status can tolerate and respond to treatment as well as younger people. This includes newer immunotherapeutic drugs and targeted therapies.

In the end, people over 70 should not be treated any differently than a younger person with the same type and stage of lung cancer unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as extreme frailty.

If in doubt about the care that you are receiving as an older adult, do not hesitate to seek a second opinion or secure the services of a patient advocate if needed.

A Word From Verywell

Try not to become obsessed with lung cancer survival rates. These are based on the average of all groups irrespective of underlying health conditions or disease complications. Instead, focus on making yourself stronger with better nutrition, exercise, emotional support, and all of the things that can make you feel the best that you can—whether you are 30 or 80.

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