Leukemia is a type of cancer that targets your blood cells and bone marrow. While most people associate leukemia with childhood cancers, it can actually develop at any age. Keep reading to learn what types of leukemia are most common in different age groups.

Leukemia can develop at any age, but certain types of leukemia are more common in different stages of life. Some are more common in children or in adults. It’s important to note that childhood leukemia is still a rare disease, in general.

See below for a breakdown of the typical ages when common leukemias develop.

Common childhood leukemias

Common adult leukemias

While leukemia can occur at any age, it’s the most common form of cancer that’s diagnosed in childhood, bringing extra attention and concern to this age group. Despite the fact that it’s the most common childhood cancer, leukemia is rare as a childhood disease overall.

Leukemia is a blanket term used to describe a number of blood and bone marrow cancers, but there are many forms, and one in particular that’s seen most often in children.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common form of leukemia in childhood, making up about 3 out of 4 of all childhood leukemia diagnoses. The remainder of childhood cancers are acute myeloid leukemia (AML) or chronic leukemias.

ALL tends to occur in younger children, generally those under 5, while AML and chronic leukemias are more commonly diagnosed before the age of 2, and then again in older children and teens.

A 2015 study noted that childhood leukemia diagnoses are more common in:

  • boys
  • Hispanic children, compared with non-Hispanic children
  • white children, compared with non-white children

Although leukemias like ALL are diagnosed in children, they usually aren’t fatal. Most deaths from ALL — 4 out of 5 — are in adults.

Generally, children have youth and their overall health working in their favor in terms of how well they respond to treatment and their overall diagnosis. In many cases, children’s bodies can handle aggressive treatments better than older adults who are diagnosed with the same leukemias.

Survival rates decrease with age

For most leukemias, even though you may be diagnosed at any age, you’re likely to have better survival odds the younger you are. For example, children diagnosed with ALL have survival rates of around 90 percent, compared with survival rates of about 40 percent in adults who have the same form of leukemia.

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How your leukemia is treated will depend on a number of factors like:

  • what type of leukemia you have
  • your age
  • your overall health
  • initial white cell count
  • genetics and subtype of your specific cancer
  • whether the leukemia has spread to other organs or tissues
  • other medical conditions you may have

Chemotherapy usually comes to mind as the primary option for treating cancer, but there are other choices when it comes to leukemia. These include:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiation
  • surgery
  • targeted therapy
  • stem cell transplantation

The goal of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery is to kill or remove cancer cells, but these treatments can harm other tissues in the process.

Targeted therapy may be used to deliver treatment to specific tissues and reduce side effects. Stem cell transplants are often used in leukemia after treatments like chemotherapy to help repopulate your body with cancer-free bone marrow.

Keep in mind that these are general treatment strategies, and how your leukemia is treated will depend on a number of factors, including what type of leukemia it is. A final treatment plan should be developed by both you and your doctor based on your diagnosis, overall health, and treatment goals.

Leukemia may be a common cancer in children — and even adults in their older years — but many people go into remission. Older adults who are diagnosed with leukemia may be facing a number of other health issues and not respond as well to treatment. But for children, most survive the most common form of childhood leukemia — ALL — and go on to live healthy lives.

New treatments are continually being developed, like gene editing and immunotherapy technologies that allow clinicians to program your immune system to more effectively kill cancer cells. You can also talk with your doctor about seeing what clinical trials might be available to target your specific leukemia type.

Regardless of the treatment you choose, keep in mind that every person’s body responds differently to cancer — and to cancer treatment. The survival rate your doctor gives you is a good estimate on how you’ll fare with various cancer treatments, but keep in mind that these estimates are just a guess based on how other people with similar cancers and treatments have done.

If you’re living with leukemia, it can help to find support groups or local resource centers that can help provide comfort. One place to start is the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer, but adults can develop leukemia, too. For children, the majority of leukemia cases aren’t fatal, thanks to highly effective treatments. If you’ve been diagnosed with leukemia, there are a lot of options for treatment. Talk with your doctor about the best course of treatment for your specific type of leukemia and your individual situation.