If you’re a woman and you’re over 70, the guidelines that say you don’t need to make that yearly trip to the gynecologist are not doing you any favors — in fact, they could be dangerous for your health.
The American Cancer Society currently says that women 70 years and older no longer require the annual Pap smear, which is used to screen for any sexual health problems, including cervical cancer. However, a new study could prove otherwise.
Over a period of six years, researchers analyzed a group of 15,733 postmenopausal women, aged 50 to 79, from the Women’s Health Initiative clinical trial. Looking at sexual activity, they split the participants into two categories: 1) those who were sexually active (in the past year) while not being married or living as married, and 2) sexually inactive women or those who were married.
After looking at Pap results at various points during the study, and ruling out those individuals with other risk factors, the researchers found that the first group was at a greater risk for developing “squamous intraepithelial lesions” (which is a technical term for abnormal changes in the cells on the surface of the cervix) and cervical cancer than the second group was.
The researchers also looked at a possible connection between hormone therapy and cell abnormalities. The hormone therapy (conjugated equine estrogen and medroxyprogesterone), taken after the onset of menopause, was found to have a link to occurrences of less serious cell abnormalities, but not to high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions or cervical cancer.
According to one of the study’s researchers, Dr. Yasmeen, incidences of cell abnormalities decrease significantly in women who are over 70 years old; nevertheless, this does not mean that you should ignore the risks.
The American Cancer’s Society’s guidelines suggest that women who are 70 and over no longer need to get Pap smears done, but they do not factor in that some older women are still sexually active and might have new partners. Why does this matter? Well, there is a virus — the human papillomavirus (HPV) — that could cause cervical cancer.
Married women are less likely to become infected with this virus, as they are with the same sexual partner for years, while sexually inactive women are obviously not likely to come into contact with it at all. Unmarried, sexually active women are therefore at increased risk of contacting HPV and developing cervical cancer. This means that they should continue seeing their gynecologist once a year for the proper screening.
Meanwhile, while married or sexually inactive women are at low risk for gynecological diseases, they should still have a Pap smear and examination done once every three years. These tests might not be pleasant, but they could save your life.