Getting a colonoscopy every ten years has become somewhat of a norm for those people over 50 years old, Despite the discomfort and mild embarrassment associated with the procedure, many elders are getting regular colon cancer screenings–so regularly, in fact, that there are some concerns that they are getting colonoscopies too frequently.

Looking at over 24,000 Medicare beneficiaries, 24 percent were found to have received more than one colonoscopy in seven years for no apparent medical reason.  Unnecessary colonoscopies not only tax the financial capacity of Medicare but can also put a person at greater risk for complications associated with the procedure.

At what point do the risks of colonoscopy complications outweigh the benefits of identifying potentially cancerous polyps?  The answer to whether an older person should get a colonoscopy depends on several factors, such as his or her age, health status, life expectancy, and previous screening history.  It is generally believed that if there are no polyps found during a less invasive screening and a person doesn’t have a family history of colon cancer, they only need to have a colonoscopy once every ten years.

Beyond that, the general guidelines are:

  • For people aged 45 to 75, colonoscopy is recommended every ten years for average-risk patients. This is because a colonoscopy can detect and remove precancerous polyps and prevent colorectal cancer.
  • For people aged 76 to 85, colonoscopy is not routinely recommended but may be considered on an individual basis; this is because the benefits of colonoscopy may not outweigh the risks and harms for older people, especially those with poor health or limited life expectancy.
  • For people aged 86 and older, colonoscopy is not recommended at all. This is because the potential benefits of colonoscopy are very low for this age group, and the risks and harms are very high.

When deciding on whether to undergo any medical test, it is important to get all of the information you possibly can about the procedure and its associated risks. Compare those risks against the senior’s overall general health, mental status, and personal health goals. Ultimately, if a colonoscopy reveals a serious health diagnosis that a senior is unwilling to treat anyway, the test may not be appropriate.

In the end, an older person should consult his or her doctor before deciding to get a colonoscopy. The doctor can help weigh the pros and cons of getting a colonoscopy based on the senior’s personal situation and preferences.