It is “almost inevitable” that your blood will take the first steps towards leukaemia as you age, researchers show. The cancer is often associated with children, but some types become more common with age. The study, published in the journal Cell Reports, showed 70% of healthy people in their 90s had genetic errors that could lead to leukaemia.
The researchers warn that the number of cases could soar as life expectancy increases.
The team at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, outside Cambridge, analysed the blood of 4,219 people. They focused on accurately testing for errors in the DNA that are linked to the blood cancers. If one blood cell in a hundred carried such a mutation they would pick it up. They suggest 20% of people in their 50s have potentially cancerous mutations rising to 70% in people in their 90s.
One of the researchers, Dr George Vassiliou, told the BBC News website: “We had suspected people had these mutations, but didn’t expect they would be an almost inevitable consequence of ageing. “What it is saying is that a lot more people than expected are starting on the path to leukaemia, but thankfully only a few make it to the end.”
While progression to leukaemia is currently rare, the scientists believe it could become more common as life expectancy increases. Dr Vassiliou added: “There is one warning for the future, if there was a significant extension of life expectancy then there could be a significant increase in leukaemia. “We don’t know what percentage of people would go on to develop leukaemia, it might be one in 1,000 or even one in 100 or more and that would have a dramatic impact.” One in three girls and one in four boys born today are expected to live to 100.