15th January 2014 – Screening women aged 50 to 64 for cervical cancer saves lives for those in this age group, and also in later life, a study suggests.
A Cancer Research UK study led by scientists from Queen Mary University of London found that women who do not have cervical screening once they pass 50 are six times more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer in later life, compared to women who had normal screening results during this time.
The level of protection provided by having normal screening results declines over time, but even women in their eighties with adequate screening history and normal results had a lower risk of cervical cancer compared to those who were not screened.
The authors say: "Screening up to age 65 years greatly reduces the risk of cervical cancer in the following decade, but the protection weakens with time and is substantially less 15 years after the last screen. In the light of increasing life expectancy, it would seem inappropriate for countries that currently stop screening between the ages 60 and 69 years to consider reducing the age at which screening ceases."
Cervical screening policies vary across the UK, but routine screening invitations cease once women are aged between 60 and 64.
In England and Northern Ireland, women between the ages of 25 and 64 are invited for screening. Between the ages of 25 and 49 women are screened every 3 years. Between the ages of 50 and 64 women have screening every 5 years.
In Scotland, women between 20 and 60 years are invited for screening every 3 years. Scotland will also extend screening for women up to the age of 64 from 2015.
In Wales, women between 20 and 64 are screened every three years.
The study, published in PLoS Medicine, examined data from 1,341 women aged 65 to 83 who were diagnosed with cervical cancer between 2007 and 2012, and 2,646 women without the disease.
In women who were not screened between the ages of 50 and 64, 49 cervical cancers were diagnosed per 10,000 women in the 65 to 83 age group. This compared to 8 cervical cancers per 10,000 women who were screened and had normal results.
Women who had been screened regularly but had an abnormal screening result when they were between 50 and 64 had the highest risk of all – 86 cervical cancers per 10,000 women at age 65 to 83.
Professor Peter Sasieni from Queen Mary University, who led the study, says in a statement: "With life expectancy increasing, it’s important for countries that stop screening under age 60 to look into their screening programmes to maximise the number of cervical cancer cases prevented and the number of cervical cancers caught at an early stage."
In a statement, Jessica Kirby, Cancer Research UK’s senior health information manager, says: "These results provide reassurance that there is a real benefit to women over 50 having cervical cancer screening.
"Screening can pick up abnormal cells in the cervix that could develop into cervical cancer if left alone – removing these cells prevents cancer from developing. Screening is a great way of reducing the risk of cervical cancer, and saves up to 5,000 lives a year in the UK. We encourage women to take up cervical screening when invited."
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