NEW YORK (Reuters Health) — Older
people with cancer who seem to be coping well with the disease might
still earn poor health scores when examined by a geriatrician,
according to a new analysis of past studies.
The review focused on older people with leukemia and
lymphoma. The findings suggest detailed examinations of those
patients provide a better, more nuanced picture of their health for
oncologists making treatment decisions, researchers said.
"Most of what we know about treating cancer comes from research that
was done in young, fit patients," Dr. Marije Hamaker wrote in an
email to Reuters Health.
Hamaker, a geriatrician at Diakonessenhuis, a hospital in Utrecht,
The Netherlands, led the new review.
"It is incorrect to assume that what is best for a younger person
will also be best for someone who is older," Hamaker said.
She and her team reviewed 18 published studies that looked at
geriatric assessments among people with blood and bone marrow
cancers. Those patients were 73 years old, on average.
The researchers found that patients who scored well on a simple
health scale tied to daily activities were actually struggling in
other areas especially relevant to the elderly, like cognitive
function, depression, social environment, nutrition, medication
interactions and frailty.
Ten of the studies examined relationships between geriatric
assessment scores and death. They showed poor physical performance
measured at a clinic and worse nutrition were consistently linked to
a higher chance of dying early.
In the past, an older person's mental and physical decline, as well
as declining social networks, were "written off as part of the aging
process," said Dr. Heidi Klepin. "And yet all of those things have a
major impact on how a person handles a disease."
Klepin, who was not part of the study, is an oncologist trained in
geriatric care at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest
Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
"We don't have a lot of knowledge on older patients because they are
rarely included in clinical trials," she said. That's because those
trials often leave out people who have other health complications.
But, "there's an ever-increasing number of older patients being
diagnosed with cancer," she said, and older patients require more
complex care than younger ones.
Nearly one third of new blood and bone marrow cancers occur in
adults over age 75, the researchers write in the journal Leukemia
They stressed that there is not enough information to make cancer
treatment decisions based on geriatric assessment scores. It's also
not clear if the assessments benefit patients going forward.
"Do geriatric assessments result in a better quality of life or a
different outcome with cancer? No one has done a randomized clinical
trial to answer that question yet because it is very complicated,"
The researchers suggest that geriatric assessments can play a role
in cancer patient care and well being, but more research on the
subject is needed.
"Geriatric assessments are a way of taking into account social,
cognitive and physical function, as well as pharmacological
concerns. (They) assess multiple health issues all at once," Klepin
"There is no question that as a doctor, I will be better prepared to
help my patient the more I know about them."