Colonoscopies can be beneficial for those over 50 years of age. They can help to spot early signs of colorectal cancer and remove polyps or growths in the colon. They can also help to diagnose the cause of symptoms like rectal bleeding or bowel movement changes.

The American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy notes that over 40% of people over the age of 50 have precancerous polyps. If a doctor finds these lesions during a colonoscopy, they can remove them during the procedure.

This article discusses the current guidance on getting a colonoscopy, the benefits and risks of the procedure, what to expect, and more.

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A doctor may recommend that a person age 50 or over undergoes a colonoscopy for a variety of reasons. A person may require a colonoscopy to:

  • check for precancerous polyps in the rectum or colon
  • to help diagnose the cause of rectal problems, such as rectal bleeding
  • to remove polyps or growths in the rectum or colon

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a colonoscopy is just one test to screen for colorectal cancer. Other tests include:

  • stool tests
  • flexible sigmoidoscopy
  • CT colonography

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that colorectal cancer screening should begin at age 45.

They also recommend that all adults between the ages of 50 and 75 years old should undergo screening for colorectal cancer. This is because the risk of developing the cancer increases with age.

However, it may not be beneficial for those ages 76–85 years to undergo screening for colorectal cancer. People in this age group can speak with the doctor to ensure that screening is suitable for them. Screening decisions should be based on:

  • a person’s preferences
  • overall health and prior screening history
  • life expectancy

Screening is not recommended for those over age 85.

How often a person should get a colonoscopy depends on the reason for the procedure.

Cancer screening

People ages 50–75 years with an average risk for colon cancer should get routine colonoscopies every 10 years. Regular screening checks can help a doctor find abnormalities early so they can be treated quickly.

Once a person turns 75, they can obtain a doctor’s approval to stop getting colonoscopies if their past colonoscopies have shown no signs of cancer or pre-cancer.

If people have an increased risk of cancer, they may require more frequent colonoscopies. The American Cancer Society (ACS) notes that those with a high risk of colorectal cancer, such as those with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, may need follow-up colonoscopies every 1–3 years.

Previous cancer

According to the ACS, most people who previously had colon or rectal cancer will need a colonoscopy 1 year after surgery. Depending on the surgery a person had, a doctor may recommend other procedures, such as an MRI scan.

Those who underwent radiation therapy on the abdomen or pelvic area may need to undergo colorectal cancer screening, including a colonoscopy, 5 years after the treatment ended. They may also require screening every 3–5 years.

Polyp removal

Those who underwent a colonoscopy to remove polyps may need another one after 3–7 years. They may need one earlier than this, depending on the type, size, and number of polyps.

A colonoscopy is a test of choice for colorectal cancer screening. Benefits of undergoing a colonoscopy include the following:

  • A medical professional can access the colon and rectum to look for signs of colon cancer, polyps, and other abnormalities.
  • They provide assurance for the individual and allow any issues to be monitored and treated quickly.
  • The technique can detect abnormal findings and allow a medical professional to remove any lesions simultaneously.

The National Cancer Institute notes that colonoscopies rarely cause serious problems, but there are still some risks associated with the procedure:

  • internal bleeding from an area where tissue or a polyp was removed
  • tear or injury to the colon
  • negative reaction to anesthesia
  • death, although this is very rare

People ages 50 and older should speak with a doctor about beginning to undergo colorectal cancer screening.

They should also speak with a doctor if they have a higher risk of colorectal cancer. A person may have a higher risk of colorectal cancer if they:

  • have a family history of bowel conditions
  • are at higher risk for developing colon cancer
  • previously had polyps or colon cancer

Depending on the above, a doctor may suggest alternative testing in addition to a colonoscopy.

The procedure involves using a long, flexible tube called a colonoscope that contains a light and a camera. It allows the doctor to see the entire colon and rectum.

In some cases, a medical professional uses special instruments to pass through the colonoscope to biopsy any suspicious-looking areas such as polyps.

A colonoscopy can be uncomfortable or painful if a person is not sedated. Sedation for a colonoscopy is now routine practice. However, unsedated colonoscopies may be required in special situations.

A colonoscopy is painless, but some people may take a mild sedative to help them stay calm and feel comfortable. An individual might also need to drink a laxative to empty their colon beforehand.

Colon cancer might not cause symptoms right away, but if it does, the signs might include one or more of the following:

It is worth noting that weight loss and abdominal pain usually occur when the cancer is advanced and grows into other parts of the body.

A colonoscopy can help catch colorectal cancer early. It can also help in identifying and removing polyps, and diagnosing the cause of symptoms, including rectal bleeding.

Although a doctor may recommend a colonoscopy for people of any age, those ages 50 and older have a higher risk of developing polyps and serious bowel conditions.

Getting routine colonoscopies can help a doctor find abnormalities early and treat them quickly.

People ages 50–75 years, who are at average risk of developing colorectal cancer should have a colonoscopy every 10 years.

Once a person reaches 75 years old, a doctor may recommend that they no longer get colonoscopies, as the risk of complications can outweigh the benefits of this procedure.