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In the human lifespan, one year may seem fairly insignificant. But for women seeking further cancer treatment following breast-conserving surgery, the disparities between therapy recommendations for sixty-nine-year-olds and seventy-year-olds are stark.
Across medical disciplines, age is a factor commonly used to identify the most beneficial treatment for a patient’s needs. Past research has shown that adjuvant treatments (which are meant to prevent cancer from recurring after primary treatment) are less effective in older patients. Given that some cancer therapies—like radiation—can have serious side effects, doctors are less inclined to prescribe such intense therapies for elderly patients who may not experience their full benefits.
But how can oncologists effectively distinguish between “younger” and “older” patients? Intuitively, the likelihood for breast cancer patients to be recommended for adjuvant treatment should gradually decline as patient age increases. However, a new study by Yale researchers showed something quite different: the only significant drop in adjuvant therapy recommendation occurred between ages sixty-nine and seventy, with an especially large gap between these two ages.
These findings suggest that doctors are implementing an “age cutoff heuristic,” suddenly knocking breast cancer patients into the “older” category as they enter their eighth decade. According to Wesley Talcott, a radiation oncologist and researcher for this study, his research shines light on an overuse of age as a factor in determining cancer treatment regimens. “This study highlights the importance of getting away from a patient’s chronologic age and thinking more about their physiologic age and their values,” Talcott said. He also emphasized the study’s significance as a collaboration between the Yale Schools of Medicine and Management. While heuristics and thinking patterns are widely studied in the field of economics, their impacts on healthcare are only now entering the spotlight as studies like this one become more common.