A cancer diagnosis can seriously impact your health and quality of life. Young and middle-aged adults are frequently encouraged to keep up with regular screening to ensure cancers are detected and treated early.
That’s why it might surprise you to learn that cancer screening in older adults is a slightly controversial topic.
Medical researchers and healthcare providers are still debating whether certain cancer screening tests can cause more harm than good for seniors. But several screening tests are still encouraged for your senior parent.
Here’s what you need to know about which cancer screening tests doctors recommend for older adults and when they should be tested.
What cancers are common in older adults?
Recent studies show that more than two-thirds of all newly diagnosed cancers affect adults over the age of 60.
As the population of seniors continues to grow and seniors start to live longer, experts believe that the number of new cancer cases will continue to grow.
Why is cancer more common in older adults?
Why do seniors get cancer more often than younger people? No one knows for sure, but researchers have some theories.
One thought is that cancer develops more often in seniors simply because they have lived longer and been exposed to more cancer-causing substances over the years than younger people. These cancer-causing substances include:
Another theory has to do with our immune systems. When we’re relatively young and healthy, our immune systems are strong enough to detect and destroy abnormal cells before they turn into cancer cells. However, as we age, the immune system naturally weakens and may not be able to fight off cancer as well as it used to.
One of the best ways for older adults to reduce their chances of developing cancer is to manage chronic health conditions and make healthy lifestyle choices. This includes being physically active, eating a healthy diet, moderating alcohol use, and quitting smoking.
Which cancer screenings are recommended for seniors?
The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) reviews medical research and recommends what cancer screening tests are necessary for older adults.
Regular colon cancer screening is recommended through age 75. Seniors aged 76 to 85 should talk with their doctor about whether continued screening is still necessary. Most people over age 85 don’t need to be screened any longer.
There are several different types of colon cancer screening available. A healthcare provider can help your parent decide which test is best and how often to do testing.
An annual low-dose CT scan is recommended for seniors who meet the following criteria:
Currently smoke or quit within the last 15 years
Have no signs of lung cancer
Have a 20-pack-year smoking history (A pack-year is one pack of cigarettes per day per year)
Your parent should discuss the benefits, risks, and limitations of lung cancer screening with their healthcare provider before they have testing done.
Women with an average risk of breast cancer should have a mammogram every two years. It’s also essential for them to perform self-checks monthly and report any changes to a healthcare provider immediately.
Women at higher than average risk for breast cancer should talk to a healthcare provider about screening more often or if other testing might be needed.
Cervical cancer screening isn’t needed for senior women who have had normal results on their testing during the previous ten years or who have had surgery to remove the cervix for non-cancer-related reasons.
Women with a history of cervical pre-cancer should continue having screenings for 25 years after that diagnosis.
Prostate cancer screening for men is based more on their overall health than their age. This is because prostate cancer is typically very slow-growing and may not always impact health in senior men. Men who expect to live at least ten more years should talk with their healthcare provider about the potential risks and benefits of being screened.
When to stop cancer screening in older adults
If cancer is more common in older adults, why do medical experts not recommend continuing cancer screening for a patient’s whole life? It’s because, after a certain point, the risks of screening older adults for cancer outweigh any benefits they might get.
People often aren’t aware that there can be potential harm in cancer screening tests. These could include anesthesia risks for a colonoscopy or the risk of a false positive leading to unnecessary follow-up.
Screening tests also are more likely to pick up slower-growing cancers. These might pick up cancers that wouldn’t cause a patient symptoms until ten to 15 years in the future. For a patient in their 80s or 90s, that might mean causing them unnecessary stress about something that won’t likely affect their health during their lifetime.
So medical researchers have designed cancer screening recommendations to ensure that the people being screened are the most likely to benefit from it and the least likely to be harmed by the tests.
It’s important to remember that the USPSTF recommendations are only for seniors who have an average risk of cancer.
If your senior parent has a history of already having cancer, has a family history of cancer that puts them at high risk, or has symptoms that might signal cancer, the recommendations for screening will be different.
Also, if your parent has above-average health and a longer life expectancy, they might benefit from cancer screening past the recommended ages.
When to encourage your parent to see a healthcare provider
Regardless of their age, if your parent has any concerning health symptoms, you should encourage them to see a healthcare provider.
Some symptoms that could indicate cancer or another serious medical condition include:
Seeing a doctor for these symptoms wouldn’t be considered a senior cancer screening. This would be a work-up of a potentially serious health condition that would be needed no matter your parent’s age.
Parentis Health is here to help
Parentis Health is here to help you take care of your senior parent’s healthcare needs every step of the way.
Whether it’s transportation to medical appointments, home healthcare, in-home caregivers, residential care, or hospice, our comprehensive services ensure that seniors in our care maintain their independence and preserve their quality of life.Contact us today to discuss how we can help!