Leukemia in older adults causes symptoms like weight loss, fatigue, and night sweats. Your outlook depends on the type of leukemia you have.

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood cells, usually white blood cells. It doesn’t cause tumors like other cancers.

There are several types of leukemia. All types can affect people of any age, but some are more common in older adults. Some types of leukemia can be hard to treat, but it may be cured in some cases.

Diagnosis, treatments, and outlook may also be different in older adults with leukemia than in children or younger adults with leukemia.

There are four main types of leukemia. The types are based on whether the leukemia spreads slowly (chronic leukemias) or quickly (acute leukemias) and where the leukemia starts.

The four main types are:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL): ALL forms in immature lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell found in bone marrow. ALL tends to grow and spread quickly. It’s relatively rare and mostly affects children.
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML): AML starts in the bone marrow in nonlymphocytic white blood cells. It often grows and spreads quickly. AML is a common type of leukemia in older adults, but it’s still relatively rare compared with other forms of cancer. The average age of diagnosis is about 68 years old. AML is rarely diagnosed in people under age 45.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL): CLL starts in the lymphocytes. It usually progresses slowly over time. It’s the most common type of leukemia in adults. CLL is usually diagnosed in people around age 70. It’s very rarely diagnosed in people under 40 years old.
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML): CML occurs when the bone marrow makes too many myeloid white blood cells. CML is slow growing. The average age at diagnosis is 64 years old. About half of cases occur in people 65 years and older.

Learn more about the differences between acute and chronic leukemia.

What causes leukemia in seniors?

Changes in the DNA of bone marrow cells cause leukemia. However, researchers have not determined why these changes occur.

AML is more common in older adults because genetic mutations often cause it. These mutations may not cause cancer at first, but they can build up over time and lead to acute leukemia.

Chronic leukemias are more commonly diagnosed in older adults, mainly because they don’t often cause symptoms in the early stages.

They are also slow growing. Cancerous cells typically build up gradually over time as people age. Therefore, people tend to be older when they receive a diagnosis of chronic leukemia.

Some of the most common symptoms of leukemia in older adults include:

  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • night sweats
  • loss of appetite
  • weakness
  • shortness of breath
  • bruising easily
  • paleness
  • chronic infections
  • bleeding easily, such as nosebleeds or bleeding gums
  • swelling or feeling fullness in your abdomen
  • joint and bone pain
  • enlarged lymph nodes

However, chronic leukemia may not show symptoms until much later in the course of the disease.

A healthcare professional may be able to identify leukemia through a blood test called a complete blood count.

This is a routine test, so they may identify an issue even before you have symptoms. In this case, the test will show too many white blood cells or cells that look out of the ordinary.

If a doctor suspects you have leukemia, they might recommend some of these additional tests:

  • physical exam to see whether your lymph nodes, liver, or spleen are swollen (enlarged)
  • bone marrow biopsy, in which tissue is taken from bone marrow in your hip to see whether there are leukemia cells in your bone marrow and to figure out what type of leukemia you may have
  • chest X-ray
  • PET scan to stage the leukemia, which means finding out how much the cancer has spread and progressed
  • chest CT scan
  • cytogenetics, which looks at chromosomes in blood or bone marrow samples and can indicate the type of leukemia you have
  • spinal tap, which checks the spinal fluid for leukemia cells

Some of these tests can also help a doctor, often a hematologist or an oncologist, determine the stage of leukemia. Different types of leukemia are staged in different ways:

  • ALL doesn’t have stages like other types of cancer, but a doctor takes into account your type ALL (B cell or T cell) when determining treatment options.
  • AML is classified in subtypes rather than symptoms using the French-American-British classification system. It includes eight subtypes based on certain blood cell characteristics, such as number of leukemia cells and type of genetic mutations.
  • In the United States, CLL is usually staged using the Rai system, which includes stages 0–4. The stages are based on the amount of lymphocytes in your blood and bone marrow, as well as spleen, lymph nodes, and liver involvement.
  • CML has three stages: chronic, accelerated, and blast. These stages are based on:
    • symptoms
    • blood cell counts
    • the number of blast cells you have

The type of treatment you receive is based on several factors, including your overall health, the type of leukemia, and your age.

Leukemia in older adults is often harder to treat than leukemia in younger people. This is because:

  • older people tend to have more comorbidities or coexisting conditions
  • higher doses of chemotherapy are too harsh for older adults
  • people become more prone to infections as they age
  • older people have more cellular mutations

Some treatment possibilities include:

  • Watch and wait: If you have a chronic type of leukemia and are relatively healthy, your doctor may recommend watching and waiting before beginning treatment. Because some treatments may be harmful to older adults, this helps make sure you’re not treated until you need to be.
  • Chemotherapy: If you’re otherwise healthy and have the necessary social support, your doctor may recommend intensive chemotherapy. It has a higher chance of curing your leukemia. However, low intensity chemotherapy can have very good results. It may be used if you have other health issues.
  • Stem cell transplant: It may not be offered to older people often, but a stem cell transplant can be very successful in preventing leukemia relapse. This is when your leukemia returns after treatment has ended.
  • Medications: Several medications are available to treat leukemia, including immunotherapies and kinase inhibitors. Immunotherapies help your immune system kill cancer cells. Kinase inhibitors help stop the cancer from growing.

Is leukemia curable in seniors?

The rate of remission in leukemia goes down with age. About 65% of people younger than 60 years may achieve remission.

That said, chemotherapy and other treatments can still successfully treat acute types of leukemia in older adults. In some cases, they can be cured.

The outlook for older people with leukemia depends on many factors, including:

  • the leukemia stage at diagnosis
  • your age
  • the type of leukemia you have
  • other health issues you may have

Acute leukemias

According to a 2019 study, for people ages 70 years and older, the median overall survival rate for ALL is 4 months. The survival rate for AML is 6–12 months.

Targeted therapies, such as immunotherapies, can increase the survival rates of people with acute leukemias. While some research suggests targeted therapies can increase survival rates to approximately 10 months after diagnosis, these therapies are new, so less is known about them.

Different types of drugs are approved for different types of leukemia. Because these drugs work on specific pathways in your body, they may be safer than other therapies. Your doctor may also recommend adding a medication to chemotherapy for better results.

Chronic leukemias

For chronic leukemias, treatment is usually used to control the spread of cancer and manage your symptoms.

Treatment is generally not expected to cure chronic leukemia, but you can live for many years with it. If your cancer goes into remission after treatment, a stem cell transplant can further increase your survival rate.

Here is a breakdown by age of the 5-year relative survival rates for people with CLL, according to the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program:

  • ages 50–64: nearly 94%
  • ages 65–74: around 90%
  • ages 75 and over: around 77%

The 5-year relative survival rate for CML is about 50% for people ages 65 and older.

These figures come from 2013–2019 data. They may not reflect current advancements in treatment that can improve someone’s outlook today.

Since these figures also come from large populations of people, they cannot predict your individual outlook.

Leukemia resources and support

If you have leukemia, make sure you have support to help you:

  • navigate the treatment process
  • explore your options
  • understand your outlook

Talking with other people in your situation might be helpful. You can ask your doctor about support groups in your area, or search for local support groups here.

Online support groups are also available for many types of cancer.

More resources are available from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, including:

  • peer connections
  • financial support
  • caregiver support
Was this helpful?

Leukemia is more commonly diagnosed in older adults. Your doctor will consider your overall health, type of leukemia, age, and other factors when forming a treatment plan.

While the median survival rate for acute leukemia can be daunting, new treatments are being tested that may improve survival rates.

People with chronic leukemia can live many years with this disease and successfully manage their symptoms.

Talk with your doctor about your treatment goals to find the best options for you.