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Just after 3:23 in this TED Radio Hour segment, featured guest Holly Morris makes the claim that "the older you are, the less detrimental the effects of radiation is." The context is in why explaining older people were allowed to return to their homes near Chernobyl following the nuclear accident. Is it true that the elderly are less sensitive to ionizing radiation than younger people, and that detrimental effects of ionizing radiation decrease with age?


Note: The original TED talk (2:11-2:34) indicates these people returned illegally, in defiance of authorities, while the later radio program claims the women "were allowed back into the area," and this age explanation is given as to why they were allowed to return, contrasted with young people who were not allowed to return (radio 3:34).

closed as unclear what you're asking by Oddthinking Jun 13 '17 at 4:18

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    If you measure detrimental effects in terms of "years of (quality) life lost", which is sometimes done, then the elderly would certainly tend to suffer less "detrimental effects" because they were going to die sooner anyway. Is it possible this is what Morris meant? There are also some effects of radiation which are specific to reproduction (infertility, birth defects, etc); people past reproductive age would not be subject to those. – Nate Eldredge Jun 10 '17 at 21:33
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    @NateEldredge: Related to that, if the damage causes a cancer that takes 15 years before causing a problem, you might never live to see it. – Oddthinking Jun 11 '17 at 1:52
  • I've closed this question because it isn't clear that the OP's interpretation matches the claim. – Oddthinking Jun 13 '17 at 4:20
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    @Oddthinking and in doing so, prevented anybody from offering a potentially more correct interpretation. I tried hard with quoting and linking to the source and asking an honest question, but still got shut down. I don't think this is good policy, and it's very bad UX, but you're the one in charge and can exclude anyone or anything you want to. – WBT Jun 13 '17 at 13:17
  • @WBT: The behaviour to encourage is people fixing the question (or at least suggesting fixes in comments and chat) to match the claim, rather than writing opinion-based, unreferenced answers, which is what has happened with Swiftcat's answer. – Oddthinking Jun 13 '17 at 13:25
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"Aging and radiation: bad companions" (open access), published in Aging Cell. 2015 Apr; 14(2): 153–161 seems to claim the opposite is true. Abstract, emphasis added:

Aging involves a deterioration of cell functions and changes that may predispose the cell to undergo an oncogenic transformation. The carcinogenic risks following radiation exposure rise with age among adults. Increasing inflammatory response, loss of oxidant/antioxidant equilibrium, ongoing telomere attrition, decline in the DNA damage response efficiency, and deleterious nuclear organization are age-related cellular changes that trigger a serious threat to genomic integrity. In this review, we discuss the mechanistic interplay between all these factors, providing an integrated view of how they contribute to the observed age-related increase in radiation sensitivity. As life expectancy increases and so it does the medical intervention, it is important to highlight the benefits of radiation protection in the elderly. Thus, a deep understanding of the mechanistic processes confining the threat of aging-related radiosensitivity is currently of foremost relevance.

Here is a 1998 summary of a paper that "suggests that the young and old are more sensitive to radiation damage than was previously thought," because immune systems are breaking down. I could not easily find the paper described there.

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That's not quite the right interpretation

The reason that the effects are less detrimental is that older people simply have fewer years left of their lives in which to be effected by the radiation. This is due to the fact that most statistical effects of radiation such as cancers take quite some time to become evident, so it is often the case that someone will die of other age related illnesses before they die from the cancer.

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