Weird Finding: This Cancer Might Help Save Your Brain

Most people fear cancer with good reason. It can be life-threatening when it spreads and cancer cells run rampant in the body. But, in a surprising twist, scientists have discovered that one fairly benign type of cancer just might signal that your brain is more resistant to developing Alzheimer’s as you age.

And they’re not really sure what to make of this discovery, though they have their theories.

The research so far shows that people who have had non-melanoma skin cancer suffer Alzheimer’s 80 percent less than those who have never had the skin condition. This association was only found with Alzheimer’s, not with other types of dementia.1

Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S. It starts growing in the outer layers of the skin and is relatively easy to cure if treated early. About 2 million Americans develop this type of cancer every year, but only about a thousand die of it. The fact is, this type of cancer is hardly worth worrying about, although dermatologists insist on cutting it out if they find it.

Reduced Alzheimer’s Risk

While researchers have not determined exactly why this type of cancer is associated with a much lower risk of Alzheimer’s, some theorize that people with this malignancy may have a lower level of the type of inflammation that leads to Alzheimer’s.

Normally, inflammation is a function of the immune system. Inflammation is designed to boost healing and fight off diseases.

When your body’s immune system uses inflammation properly, the process may be called upon to marshal a strong immune response to pathogen invasion. Inflammation may also be used to coordinate the action of immune cells that kill cancer cells.

But chronic inflammation, inflammation that continues for a prolonged period without being a response to a particular health threat, can itself damage the body. For instance, in people who suffer from arthritis, chronic inflammation leads the immune system to attack cartilage and joints. And chronic inflammation is also thought to be a root cause of many cases of heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

Consequently, researchers believe the same lack of inflammation that allows non-melanoma cancer to grow on the skin means the body may likewise have a low level of the type of inflammation that might lead to Alzheimer’s.

Possible Brain Benefits

“This research is another piece of evidence that tells us that peripheral inflammation (in the skin) is very important in Alzheimer’s disease,” Terrence Town, a professor in the physiology and biophysics department at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, told HealthDay News.2 “This reduced inflammatory response that was permissive to the skin cancer (is) perhaps beneficial in the brain,” he added.

There may be other contributing factors. Richard Lipton is the lead author of the Einstein Aging Study that found a link between cancer and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. Lipton points out that increased physical activity might explain why people with this type of skin problem are at lower risk of Alzheimer’s: “Physical activity is known to protect against dementia, and outdoor activity could increase exposure to ultraviolet radiation, which increases the risk of skin cancer.”3

In other words, people who are active outdoors are more likely to get non-melanoma skin cancer, which is believed to be caused by over-exposure to the sun. But at the same time, exercise reduces their risk of dementia. It’s a tradeoff. Exercise is good for you, sunburn isn’t.

All of us should periodically have a qualified healthcare practitioner check our skin for abnormal growths and have those growths treated if necessary. But you can take comfort in knowing that some skin abnormalities may signal a lower risk of brain abnormalities.


  1. http://www.neurology.org/content/early/2013/05/15/WNL.0b013e3182941990.abstract
  2. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_136863.html
  3. http://www.einstein.yu.edu/