updated 10/15/2003 6:04:17 PM ET 2003-10-15T22:04:17

U.S. melanoma deaths dropped significantly in people ages 20 to 44 years over the past three decades, thanks in part to educational campaigns about the dangers of too much sun, researchers say.

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The decline among young adults in deaths from melanoma — the most severe form of skin cancer — occurred from 1969 to 1999.

Overall melanoma death rates actually increased during that period from 2 per 100,000 people to 3 per 100,000, because of a rise among other age groups, especially the 45-and-older set.

But among young adults, death rates fell 39 percent in women and 29 percent in men, the researchers found in an analysis of national health data on whites. Light-skinned people are most vulnerable to melanoma.

“Positive effects of public education” emphasizing the dangers of too much sun probably contributed to the declines, the researchers said.

The study was done by Boston University researcher Alan Geller and colleagues. Their findings appear in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

In younger women, deaths declined from 1.3 per 100,000 to 0.8 per 100,000. In men, they dropped from 1.7 deaths per 100,000 to 1.2 per 100,000.

The American Cancer Society estimates that melanoma will be diagnosed in more than 53,000 people this year and will kill about 7,400.

During the study period, melanoma death rates overall climbed 66 percent in men ages 45 to 64, rising to 6.3 per 100,000. They increased 19 percent in women of the same age, climbing to 3.1 per 100,000. Death rates were highest for men ages 65 and older — 19.3 per 100,000, an increase of nearly 160 percent.

The researchers said their findings underscore the need to emphasize early detection and prevention in men in their middle and later years.

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