Women over 50 are being urged to have regular smear tests after research showed those who skip screening are six times more likely to end up with cervical cancer.
A study from Cancer Research UK scientists found women who fail to have smear tests over 50 have a much higher chance of developing the disease compared to other women the same age who have a history of normal screening results.
Researchers also found that women with a screening history and normal screening results between the ages of 50 and 64 have a lower risk of cervical cancer at least into their 80s.
Researchers examined data taken from 1,341 women aged 65 to 83 who were diagnosed with cervical cancer between 2007 and 2012, and compared them to 2,646 women without the disease.
Among those women who skipped smear tests between the ages of 50 and 64, 49, cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed per 10,000 women at age 65 to 83.
This compared to just eight cases per 10,000 women among those with an adequate screening history and normal results.
Meanwhile, women who had been screened regularly but had an abnormal result between the ages of 50 and 64 had the highest risk of all - 86 cervical cancer cases per 10,000 women at age 65 to 83.
The researchers said the level of protection offered by a good screening history of normal results does fall over time, but can last well into the 80s.
Professor Peter Sasieni, Cancer Research UK’s expert on cervical screening and co-author of the study, from Queen Mary University of London, said: “Screening up to the age of 65 greatly reduces the risk of cervical cancer in the following decade, but the protection weakens with time and is substantially weaker 15 years after the last screen.
“With life expectancy increasing, it’s important for countries that stop screening under age 60 to look into their screening programmes to maximise the number of cervical cancer cases prevented and the number of cervical cancers caught at an early stage.”
In England and Northern Ireland, women between the ages of 25 and 64 are invited for screening, with those aged 25 to 49 screened every three years and those aged 50 to 64 women screened every five years.
In Scotland, screening is routinely offered every three years to women aged between 20 and 60. This will be extended to the age of 64 from 2015.
In Wales, women between 20 and 64 are screened every three years.
The new research, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, showed screening had a similar level of effectiveness among both women screened every five years and every three years between the ages of 50 and 64.
Jessica Kirby, Cancer Research UK’s senior health information manager, said: “These results provide reassurance that there is a real benefit to women over 50 having cervical cancer screening.
“Screening can pick up abnormal cells in the cervix that could develop into cervical cancer if left alone - removing these cells prevents cancer from developing. Screening is a great way of reducing the risk of cervical cancer, and saves up to 5,000 lives a year in the UK. We encourage women to take up cervical screening when invited.”
Professor Julietta Patnick, director of the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes, said: “Unlike many cancers, cervical cancer is a largely preventable disease.
“A woman can control her risk of developing the disease by being screened regularly. Any abnormalities that might be found can then be treated in order that they do not go on to develop into cancer.
“Where a cervical cancer is found through screening, it is usually at a very early stage where treatment has a greater chance of success.
“It is essential that women are aware of this when deciding whether or not to be screened.”
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