Cancer Screenings for Seniors

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You should always prioritize healthy living through diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits to promote and maintain well-being over the years. Doing so can help reduce the risk of developing serious health issues, including cancer.


However, no matter how healthy you feel, it is important to keep up on routine cancer screenings throughout your life, which depend on your health condition, medical history, family history of cancer, and age.


When it comes to cancer screenings for seniors, there are a few important facts you should know. Keep reading to discover which screenings are recommended and when. Plus: how to avoid the potential risks of unnecessary screenings.

What is the purpose of cancer screenings?

To begin, it is important to mention that cancer screening tests are generally recommended for people at certain age groups to detect the presence of cancers in their early stages—especially when symptoms are not yet present.


However, if your health is compromised and/or if you have a personal or family history of cancer, recommendations for cancer screenings may vary. 

What types of cancer screening tests do seniors need?

The American Cancer Society recommends that adults over the age of 65 receive the following cancer screenings, the costs of which are covered by Medicare:


Colon Cancer Screening:

  • Ages 65 to 75: recommended
  • Ages 76 to 85: recommendations vary on a case-by-case basis, as determined by the senior’s physician
  • Ages 85 and older: typically not recommended


Breast Cancer Screening:

Mammograms are recommended at least every other year, but may vary if you are at a higher risk or have a family history of breast cancer.


Lung Cancer Screening:

Screening via an annual low-dose CT scan may be recommended if you have a history of smoking but will vary on your personal history.

Screening for Other Cancers

The American Cancer Society also mentions specific screening protocols for seniors regarding cervical cancer and prostate cancer:


  • Women over the age of 65 do not need cervical cancer screenings if they have (a) had normal results from cervical cancer screenings over the past 10 years, or (b) had their cervix removed for reasons not related to cancer; however, women who were diagnosed with cervical pre-cancer should continue testing for the next 25 years
  • Prostate cancer screening recommendations for men over the age of 65 will depend more on general health status than on age; it is advised to discuss the potential risks and benefits with their physician

The risks of over screening for seniors

While it is important to stay on top of your health regularly (not only through lifestyle habits but also through time-appropriate testing with your healthcare team), it is worth noting that screening for cancer when it is not recommended can pose serious risks, especially for seniors.


According to a 2020 report from the National Cancer Institute, over half of older adults in the United States have received one or more unnecessary cancer screenings over the past few years.


While people may think that a “better safe than sorry” approach to cancer screening is perfectly fine, the truth is that unnecessary cancer screenings in seniors may potentially do more harm than good. Such risks include:


  • Getting false-positive results that lead to unnecessary procedures.
  • Risk of harm from the invasive nature of certain cancer screenings, such as colonoscopies.


Essentially, if you have kept up with routine cancer screenings throughout your adult life as advised by medical experts and your healthcare team—and are not at a greater risk due to personal factors (such as your medical and family history)—seniors do not require more screenings than is advised by the guidelines shared above.


Of course, health is highly personal and unique to every individual, so your healthcare team will have the best sense of your screening requirements. If you still have additional questions about cancer screenings as a senior, be sure to reach out to your PCP, who can provide clarity and recommendations based on your personal history and needs.

Content contained on this page is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Consult your health care provider before beginning any new fitness or dietary plan. References provided are for informational purposes only and do not constitute endorsement of any websites or other sources. Should you have any health-related questions, you should contact your health care provider.

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