Data Suggests One Female Demographic Is Getting Needless Pap Smears

Cervical cancer is a serious health issue. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, it progresses quite slowly and it can take 3 to 7 years for cervical cells identified as having high-grade changes to turn into cancer. It's for this reason that they recommend regular screenings for cervical cancer. ACOG officially recommends that all women ages 21-65 undergo regular pap smears.


A major cause of cervical cancer is contracting human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV leads as the most common sexually transmitted infection, as per CDC. Although it typically clears up within two years, it can turn into cancer years or decades after the infection. This is partly why screenings are necessary, although you can still get cervical cancer without having HPV.

However, researchers are now finding that many seniors over the age of 65 are still undergoing pap smears and they say it's not only unnecessary but costly.

Cancer screenings in women over 65 are costly and unnecessary, says CDC

A research team from the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied screenings for cervical cancer in women over 65 from 1999 to 2019 (via JAMA Network). The team looked at claims from Medicare and found that these screenings totaled over $83 million.


One of the study's authors, Dr. George Sawaya, explained that there may be over-screening since it's not recommended that cancer screening be done in those who are expected to live fewer than 10 years, which they deem 80 and older (via U.S. News & World Report).

Yet, women over 65 still die from cervical cancer. "While cervical cancer is a more top-of-mind concern for younger women than older women, women over the age of 65 represent about 20% of diagnoses and 36% of deaths due to cervical cancer," says another study's author, Dr. Hunter Holt said.

"Cancer screening involves a judicious consideration of the balance between both benefits and harms,” said Sawaya. "As people get older, the potential benefits decline and the potential harms increase".


However, the ACOG states that the screening process, a pap smear (and sometimes an HPV test), "is simple and fast" so it may be more likely the concerns about overscreening may swing more toward long-term financial goals.