Older Breast Cancer Patients Experience Treatment-Related Cognitive Decline

Women older than age 65 face higher risk for several comorbidities from breast cancer treatment.

About 1 in 5 patients with newly diagnosed stage 1 to 3 breast cancer had a decline in function within 1 year of initiating treatment, a study published in Cancer found. However, a new tool may help identify women at high risk of this decline.

The status of a person’s function is key in measuring health. Prior studies have shown that functional decline is associated with decreased likelihood of recovering from a serious illness, an increased likelihood of death, reduced tolerance to cancer treatment, and significant financial burden on the individual and society as a whole.

In order to prevent functional decline, researchers examined 184 women age 65 and older diagnosed with stage 1 to 3 breast cancer to try and identify which of the participants were more vulnerable. The Vulnerable Elders Survey, a 13-item self-administered tool that predicts functional decline or death within 12 months was used for the study.

Participants completed the survey prior to undergoing treatment. The results of the study showed that 34 of the 184 patients developed functional decline within 12 months, and 7 patients died.

As the survey scores increased, the risk of functional decline or death rose. Furthermore, women who didn’t have an education beyond high school were disproportionately affected.

“Our findings are important because the study validates the Vulnerable Elders Survey as a useful tool for identifying older women with breast cancer who may be at increased risk for functional decline within a year of treatment initiation,” said researcher Cynthia Owusu, MD, MS. “This instrument offers the opportunity for early identification and will inform the development of interventions to prevent and address functional decline for those particularly at risk, such as women with low socioeconomic status. Such efforts may in the long-term translate to improved treatment tolerance and better breast cancer outcomes.”