New research suggests that both age and gender differences can influence susceptibility to developing the fatal and incurable asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma, and the survival rate at the point of confirmed diagnosis.

According to latest French studies, which analysed twenty years of medical data from nearly 2,500 males who had all been exposed to asbestos, the prevalence of malignant pleural mesothelioma (cancer affecting the lung linings) was found to be highest in those first exposed when they were under 20 years old.

The findings appear to also suggest why many long retired and elderly men may only latterly make the connection and suspect they have asbestosis symptoms in the many thousands of confirmed cases of mesothelioma and other asbestosis diseases, which only emerge up to nearly 50 years later. Inhaled asbestos fibres, which remain permanently lodged within the linings of the lungs or stomach, almost always eventually cause asbestosis diseases or mesothelioma.

The findings also underline the continuing upward trend for asbestos-related disease since the material was completely banned from use in the UK in 1998. According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) there was a sharp rise in the number of mesothelioma deaths in the UK, up from 2,249 in 2008 to 2,321 deaths in 2009.

For most of the twentieth century, several different forms of asbestos were commonly used as an insulating material throughout the UK’s construction, manufacturing and engineering industries until the 1970s and 80s. Lack of information leading to poor or non-existent asbestos awareness to the deadly health risks meant that many young men were constantly exposed or directly handling asbestos in their workplace.

In a separate 20 year study in Australia of just under 300 patients diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma (cancer affecting the stomach), “female patients were shown to have a significantly improved survival outcome than male patients”, according to the researchers.

Previous work conducted into gender comparisons had found contrasting survival rates following combined surgery/chemotherapy treatments, with over 60 per cent of females and just over 40 per cent of males surviving for 5 years. It is thought that size and composition differences in how mesothelioma tumours form is probably due to higher levels of oestrogen in female patients. However, older female patients did not survive as long as younger female patients.

Despite recent improvements in survival rates due to new types of asbestosis treatments and palliative care, for most elderly patients who are diagnosed at advanced stages of the spread of the disease, life expectancy is still between 4 to 12 months.