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Older Women and Cervical Cancer Screenings

Older Women and Cervical Cancer Screenings

Although cervical cancer is a preventable disease, the American Cancer Society estimates that in 2018:

  • Nearly 13,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed.
  • More than 4,200 women will die from cervical cancer.

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and ATRIO Health Plans is stressing the importance of women having regular Pap tests and continuing to have regular Pap tests as they get older. This screening procedure not only can detect changes in the cervix before cancer develops, but it also can uncover cervical cancer in its early, most curable stage. When uncovered early, cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treated cancers. In fact, over the last 40 years, the cervical cancer death rate in America has declined by more than 50 percent. Experts attribute this decrease to the effectiveness of the Pap test.

Older Women Could be at Risk

Most cases of cervical cancer occur in women younger than 50. As a result, many women are unaware that they remain at risk of developing cervical cancer as they age. In reality, women over age 65 account for more than 15 percent of cervical cancer cases. Even more striking, a study published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that incidence rates of cervical cancer do not begin to decline until 85 years of age among women who haven't undergone a hysterectomy.

The study's lead investigator concluded that an older woman who hasn't had her cervix surgically removed has the same or even higher risk of developing cervical cancer compared to a younger woman. Consequently, the study's primary author recommended that women who haven't had a hysterectomy need to continue being screened until age 65, and possibly later if they haven't had a Pap test for many years or are at special risk.

Data from this study also revealed that many women approaching the "stopping" age of 65 were not getting sufficient Pap screenings. Researchers established that the proportion of women not recently screened increases with age. While only 12 percent of women in their 40s had no recent screening history, that number progressively increased for women in their 50s and 60s. In fact, some 850,000 women aged 61 to 65 years old had not had a Pap test within the last five years.

The study's primary investigator warned that cervical cancer should not be thought of as a younger women's disease. Conversely, some of the highest cervical cancer incidence rates were found to occur among women older than 65.

Others at Risk

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vast majority of cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a common virus that is passed from one person to another during sex.

Other risk factors include:

  • Smoking.
  • Having the virus that causes AIDS, or another condition that weakens the immune system.
  • Using birth control pills for five or more years.
  • Giving birth to three or more children.
  • Having several sexual partners.


While pre-cancerous cells and early cervical cancer generally don't present symptoms, cervical cancer that has become invasive can be accompanied symptoms, including:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding after sex or between periods, or having longer or heavier periods than usual.
  • Pain during sexual intercourse.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge that may contain blood or occur between periods.

Any concerns should be expressed to your healthcare provider. A conversation about how often you should have a Pap test also is appropriate.