In a move that could lead to significant changes in medical care for older men, a national task force on Monday recommended that doctors stop screening men ages 75 and older for prostate cancer because the search for the disease in this group was causing more harm than good.
The guidelines, issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and published on Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, represent an abrupt policy change by an influential panel that had withheld any advice regarding screening for prostate cancer, citing a lack of reliable evidence.
Screening is typically performed with a blood test measuring prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, levels. Widespread PSA testing has led to high rates of detection. Last year, more than 218,000 men learned they had the disease.
Yet various studies suggest the disease is “overdiagnosed” — that is, detected at a point when the disease most likely would not affect life expectancy — in 29 percent to 44 percent of cases. Prostate cancer often progresses very slowly, and a large number of these cancers discovered through screening will probably never cause symptoms during the patient’s lifetime, particularly for men in their 70s and 80s. At the same time, aggressive treatment of prostate cancer can greatly reduce a patient’s quality of life, resulting in complications like impotency and incontinence.
Past task force guidelines noted there was no benefit to prostate cancer screening in men with less than 10 years left to live. Since it can be difficult to assess life expectancy, it was an informal recommendation that had limited impact on screening practices. The new guidelines take a more definitive stand, however, stating that the age of 75 is clearly the point at which screening is no longer appropriate.
Dr. Calonge said it was important that the guidelines not be viewed as “giving up” on older men. While the new rules should discourage routine testing of older patients, the recommendations will not prevent a man from seeking screening if he desires it, Dr. Calonge said. The new guidelines are not expected to alter Medicare’s current reimbursement for annual PSA screening of older men.
The guidelines focus on the screening of healthy older men without symptoms and will not affect treatment of men who go to the doctor with symptoms of prostate cancer, like frequent or painful urination or blood in the urine or the semen.
While the verdict is still out on younger men, the data for older men are more conclusive, experts say. The American Cancer Society and the American Urological Association both say annual PSA screening should be offered to average-risk men 50 and older, but only if they have a greater than 10-year life expectancy.
Treatments for prostate cancer can cause significant harm, rendering men incontinent or impotent, or leaving them with other urethral, bowel or bladder problems. Hormone treatments can cause weight gain, hot flashes, loss of muscle tone and osteoporosis.
Bottom Line: If you are 75 years of age or older, you probably don’t need any additional screening for prostate cancer.
This blog was excerpted from The New York Times, October 4, 2013