New research has found that around 20% of cervical cancer cases diagnosed in the UK each year are in women aged over 65, sparking calls for an extension to screening services.

Screening is currently only offered to women aged between 25 and 64 years, but an analysis by Keele University, published in the BMJ, also notes that 50% of deaths from cervical cancer occur after this age band, going against perception that the disease primarily affects younger women.

“We need to change the perception of cervical cancer so it is thought of just like breast and bowel cancer - that it can affect women well into old age,” said Susan Sherman, senior lecturer in Psychology at Keele University.

This, she argues, may also help to turnaround the decline in uptake of cervical screening in women over the age of 55. “If older women believe that they are not at risk or are at reduced risk of cervical cancer because of their age and there is no ongoing health literacy aimed at those women, there is no reason for them to attend routine screening, look out for symptoms, or re-enter the screening programme if they have previously opted out”.

Lack of awareness

A separate report by cancer charity Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust - published today to mark the start of Cervical Cancer Awareness Week - has also revealed an alarming lack of knowledge about the causes of the disease and who is at risk from it. 

Almost two thirds (60%) of women aged 50-64 do not know that the human papillomavirus causes cervical cancer, and many failed to link historic sexual activity as a threat to the virus laying dormant and developing into the disease later in life, the charity stressed.

The survey found that the average time women aged 50-64 delay their screening for was almost four years (47.6 months) while one in 10 said they delayed for between five and 10 years, underscoring the need for better education to improve the chances of earlier detection.