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Brain Tumor Facts & Figures, April 2018: Years of Potential Life Lost

Our monthly series called “Brain Tumor Facts & Figures” will go beyond some of the more well-known stats about this disease (e.g. nearly 700,000 Americans living with a brain tumor; nearly 80,000 more will be diagnosed in 2018; and an average five-year survival rate of only around 35%). The information provided in this series is aimed to help you in your advocacy, fundraising, and awareness-raising efforts by presenting pieces of facts that can help convey the difficult realities our community is up against. These can be used to make a case for support to your members of Congress, state legislators, family, friends, co-workers, and other members of your community and network.

For a full breakdown of all the standard brain tumor statistics and facts, one can always view our Brain Tumors Quick Facts webpage.


Back in February, we looked at a measure called “Years of Life Lost” due to brain cancer from the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) recent Cancer Trends Progress Report. This month, we’ll look at a similar, but distinct, analysis of “Years of Potential Life Lost,” from a study published in the journal Neuro-Oncology in 2016 by leading brain tumor epidemiologists, including Dr. Jill Barnholtz-Sloan of Case Western Reserve School of Medicine. This new twist on the previous blog’s measure of Years of Life Lost further demonstrates the impact brain tumors take on those diagnosed.

The Measure: Years of Potential Life Lost (YPLL). YPLL measures the average time an individual would have lived had he or she not died prematurely, in an attempt to highlight the economic and social impacts of premature mortality.

What it Means: YPLL supplements traditional measures like overall survival rates and mortality by measure how much a patient’s life is likely to be shortened by his or her disease. In this study, researchers examined the impact of death due to brain and central nervous system (CNS) tumors compared to other, more common, cancers by investigating the YPLL of adults (people 20-years or older at the time of death) in the United States, using data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics’ Vital Statistics Data. The other cancers selected for this study included the four most common cancers in adults (lung, colorectal, prostate, and breast) and two other less common cancers that are associated with high mortality rates (pancreatic and ovarian). The total YPLL is significantly affected by total number of deaths for each cancer; hence, for the purposes of this study, we looked at the mean YPLL to provide a better estimate of the impact of each cancer on individual life.

Where Brain Cancer Ranks: Malignant brain and CNS tumors have the greatest mean YPLL, thereby reflecting their short survival time post-diagnosis, even compared to other cancers. Malignant brain tumors had the highest mean YPLL in both males and females, averaging around 20 years. The mean YPLL for the other common cancers in adults ranged from 14 to 18 years. Even nonmalignant (or benign) brain tumors had a mean YPLL of 14.78 in males – more than both prostate cancer (9.64) and even lung cancer (14.47).

The Implications: The aim of this study was to quantify the impact of death due to brain and CNS tumors occurring in adults by estimating the years of potential life lost, and thus highlighting how much a patient’s life is shortened by his or her disease.

While brain and CNS tumors are relatively rare, they are highly aggressive, as seen in the disproportion between high mortality and morbidity. Estimation of YPLL for these tumors more accurately depicts the impact on individual lives when examined in the context of other more common cancers in adults, than measures like overall mortality rates, which are influenced by incidence rates.

What this study ultimately demonstrates is that, although other cancers have higher age-adjusted incidence and mortality rates than brain and CNS tumors, brain and CNS tumors have the highest mean YPLL. This paints a more complete picture of the effects of this disease and demonstrates how devastating these tumors are despite their relative rarity.

Accurate estimations of YPLL are imperative for understanding disease burden on society. It emphasizes the increased health burden for this diagnosis and quantifying potential social and economic impact.

As the study’s authors write in their conclusion, “The results in this study help further our knowledge of the implications of brain and CNS tumors on premature deaths in adults in the US and may, hopefully, motivate more research into mitigating not only the social impact but the less well-known economic impact of these debilitating tumors.”

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