In March of 2021, the U.S. Preventative Services Taskforce (USPSTF) updated its lung cancer screening guidelines for the first time since 2013. This recommendation nearly doubled the number of individuals eligible for screening by lowering the recommended age range to begin screening to age 50 (from 55) as well as reducing the minimum pack-year smoking history from 30 to 20.

Under the new guidelines, about 14 million people in the U.S. are at high-risk for lung cancer and should talk to their doctor about getting screened. Those considered high risk under the new criteria include people 50-80 years of age with a 20 or higher pack-year history (people who smoked 1 pack/day for 20 years, 2 packs/day for 10 years etc.) who currently smoke or have quit within the last 15 years.

Lung cancer screening is the best way to prevent lung cancer deaths— the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. The key to saving lives is catching lung cancer early before it spreads to other parts of the body. In fact, if lung cancer is caught at an early stage, the five-year survival rate is five times higher.

“With lung cancer, early detection is key,” says LUNG FORCE Hero, Denise L, who after 35 years as a smoker was Saved By The Scan when she saw an American Lung Association ad about getting screened for lung cancer. “By dropping the age from 55 to 50,” she says, “more people can get screened earlier, which means catching the disease earlier, better treatment options and lives saved.”

More than 235,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with lung cancer and more than 130,000 are estimated to die from this disease this year alone. Many of these deaths can be prevented if more of those at high risk talk to their healthcare provider about screening for lung cancer.

Reducing Disparities

At the core, the new guidelines aim to save more lives. “These new [screening] guidelines are important because they expand coverage and access to proven lifesaving early detection for those individuals at high risk for lung cancer,” says Dr. Andrea McKee, Chief of the Division of Radiation Oncology at the Lahey Hospital & Medical Center.

Specifically, the new screening guidelines recommend more Black Americans and women for screening, two populations that tend to see greater impacts of tobacco use with lesser exposure. Communities of color, specifically, have much lower rates of early diagnosis and survival. The new guidelines are one approach to reduce these disparities and save more lives.

Medicare Updates

On February 10, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that it updated its lung cancer screening eligibility guidelines for people covered by Medicare to be similar to the USPSTF guidelines (CMS guidelines are for ages 50-77 instead of the USPSTF guidelines of ages 50-80). As a result of the Affordable Care Act, most private insurance plans are required to cover lung cancer screening for those now at high risk under the USPSTF criteria for plan years beginning after March 31, 2022.

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