Assessment of Age, Period, and Birth Cohort Effects and Trends in Merkel Cell Carcinoma Incidence in the United States

November 4, 2020


JAMA Dermatology

Publication Date

November 4, 2020


Daniel Jacobs, Huang Huang, Kelly Olino, Sarah Weiss, Harriet Kluger, Benjamin L Judson, Yawei Zhang


Importance: Merkel cell carcinoma is an aggressive, cutaneous, neuroendocrine cancer that is increasing in incidence. Understanding why the incidence of Merkel cell carcinoma is increasing through underlying factors, such as age effects, calendar period of diagnosis effects, and birth cohort effects, can help guide resource allocation and design of screening programs.

Objectives: To evaluate the associations of patient age, calendar period of diagnosis, and birth cohort with the increasing incidence of Merkel cell carcinoma and to provide new incidence projections to 2030.

Design, setting, and participants: A cross-sectional retrospective study with age-period-cohort analysis and incidence projection modeling using data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program database of 9 registries from 1987 to 2016 was conducted among 3720 patients with Merkel cell carcinoma. Statistical analysis was conducted from October 20, 2019, to July 29, 2020.

Exposures: Age effects (ie, physiology), period of diagnosis effects (ie, changes in diagnostics and clinical awareness), and birth cohort effects (ie, environmental risk factors) over time were assessed.

Main outcomes and measures: Incidence rates of Merkel cell carcinoma.

Results: Among the 3720 patients in the study (2200 male patients [59.1%]; median age, 77 years [interquartile range, 68-84 years]), during the period from 2012 to 2016, the age-adjusted Merkel cell carcinoma incidence rate was 0.66 per 100 000 (95% CI, 0.62-0.70), which represented a 3.5-times (95% CI, 3.0-4.2) increase from 1987 to 1991. The incidence of Merkel cell carcinoma increased with patient age across calendar periods and birth cohorts; the highest incidence rate was observed for those aged 85 years or older, with an age-adjusted rate from 2012 to 2016 of 14.6 per 100 000 for men and 5.5 per 100 000 for women. Although the birth cohort effect has continued to increase over time, the calendar period of diagnosis effect has started to plateau. It is projected that there will be 3023 new cases of Merkel cell carcinoma in 2020 and 5130 new cases in 2030, increased from an estimated 1933 cases in 2010.

Conclusions and relevance: The slowing down of the period effect (ie, changes in diagnostics and awareness) found in this longitudinal cohort study suggests that part of the initial increased incidence of Merkel cell carcinoma was associated with increased detection. However, the projected increase in incidence rate is likely associated with the aging population and increasing risk factor exposure in more recent birth cohorts.

View the clinical publication