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Is Colonoscopy After Age 80 Worth It?

Study: Weigh Colonoscopy's Risks and Benefits Carefully at 80 and Beyond
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 23, 2006 -- People aged 80 and older may want to talk to their doctors about whether or not they should get colonoscopies to screen for colorectal cancercolorectal cancer.

For people in that age range, screening colonoscopy "should be performed only after careful consideration of potential benefits, risks, and patient preferences," write Otto Lin, MD, MSc, and colleagues in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Lin works in Seattle at Virginia Mason Medical Center's gastroenterology section. His study included 1,244 people aged 50 and older who got screening colonoscopies at Seattle's Virginia Mason Medical Center from January 2002 to January 2005.

The researchers predict that the oldest participants would gain the least time, in terms of life expectancy, by getting those colonoscopies. Understanding Colon Cancer: Stage By StageUnderstanding Colon Cancer: Stage By Stage

Lin's study has "minor shortcomings" but concludes that "sound screening decisions involving elderly patients should consider their individual circumstances," states a journal editorial.

About Colonoscopy

In colonoscopy, doctors use a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera to check a patient's colon and rectum. Colonoscopy is one of the tests that check for colorectal cancercancer and abnormal growths, such as polyps, that may develop into colorectal cancer. During a colonoscopy, biopsies can be taken and polyps removed.

Colonoscopy is highly regarded, but it has risks. Patients need anesthesia for the invasive procedure. In rare cases, the colon may bleed or perforate during the colonoscopy procedure.

As with many diseases, early detection of colon cancer may make a big difference to patients' survival. Colon cancer screening tests are recommended for everyone aged 50 and older; people at high risk for colorectal cancer may need to start screening earlier.

Colorectal cancer is the No. 2 cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. for men and women combined, according to the American Cancer Society.

Screening for Colorectal Cancer

Screening methods for colorectal cancer include:

  • Colonoscopy every 10 years
  • Digital rectal exam every year
  • Fecal occult blood test (a home test that checks for blood in the stool) every year
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy (like a colonoscopy but only checks the lower part of the colon) every 5 years
  • Air-contrast barium enema every 5-10 years

There is no upper age cutoff for those tests. Lin's study doesn't change that.

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