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When Can You Stop Your Health Screenings?

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When Can You Stop Your Health Screenings?

Aug 20, 2021

Whether it’s a pap smear, a mammogram, or even a colonoscopy, medical screenings are vital to staying healthy as we age. But is there a point when you no longer need them? Dr. Kirtly Jones takes a look at the research behind common preventive screenings and under what circumstances you may no longer need to be tested.

Episode Transcript

So you just had your Pap smear or your mammogram and it wasn't that bad was it? Or your colonoscopy. Okay, it really was that bad, but you didn't remember it. Are you wondering when you can stop doing these tests?

I asked a woman I know, who is in the health and fitness business, when she thought she could stop doing her cancer screening, you know, Paps, mammos, colonoscopy. She said, "Never," with a smile. She never wanted to stop her cancer screening, "It isn't all that bad, and it makes me feel safe," she said. I replied that cancer screening decisions about when and how often is a cost, risk, benefit analysis, and there are some data to inform that decision. She said, "You go with your brain, I go with my heart."

Well, let's go with the brain for a little while, okay? Let's start with Pap smears. The recommendations about Pap smears have been changing as we know more about what mostly causes cervical cancer -- the HPV virus -- and how fast it grows, usually not too fast. Cervical cancer does not increase with age for a lot of reasons. Sexual activity and the number of partners doesn't increase with age. Well, usually. And the cervix in postmenopausal women may not be as receptive to the virus. So there are good reasons to say that when you get to 65, if you've had normal Pap smears for the past 10 years, that means you actually have been having Pap smears in the past 10 years, and you haven't had an abnormal Pap in 20 years, you can stop testing. There's some pretty solid numbers to back this up, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force makes that recommendation.

Okay. How about colonoscopy? Well, colon cancer does not decrease with age. But if you don't have any family history of colon cancer and if your previous colonoscopies, that assumes that you've had some, have not shown any polyps or precancerous lesions, you can stop at 75. That's the recommendation of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American College of Physicians.

Lastly, mammography. Breast cancer does not decrease with age. It increases with age. The aggressiveness of breast cancer is less in older women than it is in younger women. But women still will get treated, which can be aggressive in and of itself. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said there's not enough evidence to recommend for or against mammograms at age 75 and older. But about a quarter of deaths from breast cancer each year are attributed to a diagnosis made in women after the age of 74. Women as they get older are less likely to get mammograms. About three-quarters of women 50 to 74 have had a mammogram in the past two years, but only 40% of women over 85. Of course, many women over 85 are in poor health, and mammography is just not on the list of things to do. And clinicians are less likely to recommend mammography if a woman is in poor health. The American Cancer Society suggests women should continue mammograms as long as their overall health is good and they have a life expectancy of at least 10 more years.

Well, how long am I going to live? I went online and Googled, "How long will I live?" There are lots of calculators because insurance companies and pension plans really want to know. Well, I tried a life expectancy calculator that was developed by the University of Pennsylvania and has been mentioned in the mainstream media. It asks sex not gender, age, height, weight, alcohol, smoking, diabetes, marriage status, whether I exercised, ate my veggies. I didn't fudge my weight or height. This calculator said I was going to live till 93 and I had a 75% chance of living to 85.

Another life expectancy calculator from asked me just a few questions, not my height or weight,or smoking, or alcohol, or diabetes. It did ask my relationship status, and options included happy relationship and married, but these were mutually exclusive. You could only pick one. Well, this one had my life expectancy of 97. And the calculator from Northwest Mutual, a well-respected life insurance company, cranked me out at 98.

Well, I really don't want to hang around the planet all that long. But I really hope that my savings will take me up there, and I'm going to have to have mammograms for a while yet.

Thanks for joining us for the "Seven Domains of Women's Health" on The Scope.