Women over 50 urged not to skip smear tests
Women aged 50 and older are being warned of the dangers of skipping smear tests.
A Cancer Research UK study reveals women who fail to attend for the screening after their 50th birthday are six times more likely to end up with cervical cancer.
The findings in PLoS Medicine serve as a reminder that screening saves lives, says the charity.
In most of the UK, women aged 25 to 64 are invited for screening.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, women between 25 and 49 are offered three-yearly checks and thereafter five-yearly screening until they turn 65.
In Scotland, women between 20 and 60 years are invited for screening every three years. Scotland will also extend screening for women up to the age of 64 from 2015.
Reducing the risk
The study looked at data from more than a thousand women aged over 65 and diagnosed with cervical cancer and 2,646 women without the disease.
The results suggest that cervical screening in women aged 50-64 has a substantial impact on cervical cancer rates not only at this age, but for many years after - into a woman's eighth decade.
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."
The number of eligible women aged 50-64 who have attended their cervical screening appointments has dropped in the last decade - from 81% in 2003 to 77.5% in 2013.
There has also been a steady decline in attendance by younger women over the same timescale.
In 2012-13, 3.32 million women aged 25 to 64 years were tested, a fall of 6.8% from 2011-12 when 3.56 million were tested.
Prof Julietta Patnick, director of the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes, said: "Unlike many cancers, cervical cancer is a largely preventable disease.
"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."