Both Senator Ted Kennedy and golfer Seve Ballesteros have undergone surgeries to remove brain tumors in recent months. The frightening diagnosis of a brain tumor is one that no one ever wants to hear. And, yet, it seems like it's becoming increasingly more common among people well-known and people unknown. Could it be possible that brain tumors are on the rise? The frightening answer is yes.

More Brain Tumor Diagnoses

In the last 20 years, the American population as a whole has seen an increase of about 22 percent, and in people older than 65, that uptick in brain tumors is about 55 percent, according to statistics from the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Program of the National Cancer Institute. Another study conducted by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute found a large increase in the incidence of two specific types of brain tumors in New York state between 1976 and 1995.

In general, brain tumors are more common among older people, but statistics even show an increase in brain tumors in kids. The incidence increased by 35 percent in children younger than 15, according to the website Pediatric Oncology Education Materials, which provides information for healthcare professionals.

It's important to remember that brain tumors remain relatively rare, despite the dramatic upswing in the percentage of people receiving this diagnosis. For example, fewer than 8 people per 100,000 develop brain tumors each year, but, by contrast, prostate cancer occurs in 145 people per 100,000.

Many brain tumors actually start as cancer cells in other parts of the body and eventually travel through the bloodstream to the brain, according to information from the Brain Tumor Center at the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Institute.

Why the Increase?

Experts aren't sure exactly what is causing more people to be diagnosed with brain tumors. Some speculate that it's not that more people are getting brain tumors, but that doctors are doing a better job at finding them. In a report published in the journal Neurosurgical Focus, the authors said that it might be attributed simply to better detection of the tumors. They noted that CAT/CT scans were first used in the 1970s and MRIs were introduced in the early 1980s

Others say that it might be due to changes in lifestyles. For example, there is a suspected link between cell phone use and brain tumors, which has not been conclusively proven.  In addition, workers who are exposed to certain chemicals or to radiation are more likely to develop brain tumors several decades later. More employees were exposed to these types of harmful substances in the years before the uptick in tumors happened.

Looking to the Future

Amid these frightening diagnoses, researchers and foundations continue to work hard to develop new treatments, improve existing treatments, and improve the quality of life for brain tumor patients. Organizations like the National Brain Tumor Foundation and the Goldhirsh Foundation provide grants to researchers interesting in studying brain tumors and their treatments.

If you're looking for a way to help, many groups sponsor walk-a-thons and other fundraising events.