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June 8, 2014

Study: Colon cancer screen helps some over 75

WASHINGTON — How old is too old for a colonoscopy? A surprising number of people older than 75 haven’t ever been screened for colon cancer — and researchers reported Monday that it’s not too late for them to get caught up.

Some may even consider screening into their 80s.

Colon cancer screening is powerful, credited not only with saving lives. The American Cancer Society recently calculated that over the last decade, new cases of colon cancer dropped significantly among middle-aged and older adults, thanks largely to increasing use of colonoscopies that allow removal of precancerous growths before tumors have time to form.

Some things to know about the latest research on colon cancer screening.

Who sould be screened?

National guidelines recommend regular checks starting at age 50 and going up to age 75. Nearly two-thirds have been appropriately screened for colon cancer, according to the latest government estimates.

What about older Americans?

Those guidelines don’t recommend routine screening after age 75. After all, a colonoscopy that delivers good news isn’t supposed to be repeated for 10 years, because it takes so long for those precancerous polyps to become dangerous. Average life expectancy for an 80-year-old is eight to 10 years.

But the guidelines don’t address the 23 percent of Americans over 75 who somehow missed out on screenings when they were a bit younger, before a colon check in your 50s and 60s had become the norm.

Monday’s study examines if it’s worth starting screening so late, when most people already have at least a few other health problems, such as heart disease, that could affect whether detecting an early-stage colon cancer prolongs life.

The findings

Researchers at Erasmus University in the Netherlands and New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center used computer modeling to compare the potential effects of different colon checks on 10 million previously unscreened people ages 76 to 90.

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