Elderly cancer survivors face increased functional limitations, study finds

Elderly cancer survivors reported a higher number of functional limitations than women who had never been diagnosed with cancer, according to a study in the April 19 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The findings suggest a need for health interventions that will enable elderly cancer survivors to regain or maintain physical function.

Women today have longer life expectancies than previous generations, and the population of elderly people in the United States is growing. Elderly men and women's ability to perform physical daily activities, such as doing housework, climbing stairs, or preparing meals, is an indicator of their overall health and well-being.

Carol Sweeney, Ph.D., of the University of Utah and colleagues studied data from 25,719 women of a median age of 72 years in the Iowa Women's Health Study (IWHS) cohort. These women completed a questionnaire in 1997 about their physical ability to perform daily functions. Examples of questions used included, "Can you walk half a mile?" and "Can you prepare most of your own meals?"

Sweeney and colleagues found that five-year survivors more frequently reported functional limitations than women who had never had cancer, including inability to do heavy household work (43% vs. 31%), inability to walk a half mile (26% vs. 19%), and inability to walk up and down stairs (9% vs. 6%). Data indicates that the experience of having cancer continues to affect women's lives long after successful treatment, they suggest.

The authors write, "These findings support the need for interventions to prevent and reverse functional decline among elderly long-term cancer survivors."

In an accompanying editorial, Julia H. Rowland, Ph.D., of the National Cancer Institute, and Rosemary Yancik, Ph.D., of the National Institute on Aging, highlight the importance of the study by Sweeney et al. They write that "new knowledge must be generated at the cancer/aging interface and applied for optimal results for our aging and older cancer survivors. We have an urgent need to educate a generation of health care professionals equipped to research, develop, and deliver interventions to prevent or ameliorate the long-term and late effects of cancer survivorship."

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Contacts:
Article: Linda Aagard, University of Utah Huntsman Cancer Institute, 801-587-8639, Linda.aagard@hci.utah.edu
Editorial: NCI Press Officers, National Cancer Institute, 301-496-6641, NCIPressOfficers@mail.nih.gov

Citations:
Article: Sweeney C, Schmitz KH, Lazovich D, Virnig BA, Wallace RB, Folsom AR. Functional Limitations in Elderly Female Cancer Survivors J Natl Cancer Inst 2006; 98:521-529.
Editorial: Rowland JH, Yancik R. Cancer Survivorship: The Interface of Aging, Co-morbidity, and Quality Care J Natl Cancer Inst 2006; 98:504-505.

Note: The Journal of the National Cancer Institute is published by Oxford University Press and is not affiliated with the National Cancer Institute. Attribution to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute is requested in all news coverage. Visit the Journal online at http://jncicancerspectrum.oxfordjournals.org/.


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