The number of women attending regular smear tests steadily declines after the age of 45, according to a new study, despite half of cervical cancer diagnoses occurring in women over 49.
Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer but the findings from the University of Michigan cancer centre highlight the need for women to continue attending appointments post-menopause for early detection to be possible.
The new study, which appeared in the journal Preventative Medicine and analysed data from around 80,000 participants in the USA, found screening rates drop in certain subpopulations of women, particularly those between the ages of 49 and 65.
Women in rural communities and those with lower levels of education were also less likely to regularly attend their screening.
In the UK, the NHS says all people with a cervix between the ages of 25 and 64 should go for regular cervical screening – they will get a letter in the post inviting them to do so.
Unless your doctor requires you to be tested more regularly, you will have a smear test every three years between the ages of 25-49 then every five years between 50-64. After the age of 65 you will only be invited if one of your last tests presents abnormal results.
Cervical screening checks for abnormal cell changes in the cervix or the presence of HPV (the human papillomavirus).
A routine programme of vaccination against HPV has been offered to girls in UK secondary schools since 2008 and boys since September 2019. But older age groups have not had this, which scientists say places even greater emphasis on screening.
Professor Diane Harper, senior study author, said: “Early detection is key to preventing invasive, devastating and potentially fatal cases of cervical cancer.
“From a public health standpoint, screening of women under 30 is considered to be the least effective investment of resources, because cancer tends to develop in middle age.
“Meanwhile, if a woman is screened after age 42, there is an 8 in 10 likelihood no cancer will be detected at her next screening a few years later -- meaning they’re a vital way of catching problems early.”
This study supports previous research from Cancer Research UK which found women who failed to attend screenings after their 50th birthday were six times more likely to end up with cervical cancer.
The number of eligible women aged 50-64 who attended cervical screening appointments dropped from 81% in 2003 to 77.5% in 2013.
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