Underrepresentation of patients 65 years of age or older in cancer-treatment trials

N Engl J Med. 1999 Dec 30;341(27):2061-7. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199912303412706.


Background: Studies have documented the underrepresentation of women and blacks in clinical trials, and their recruitment is now federally mandated. However, little is known about the level of participation of elderly patients. We determined the rates of enrollment of patients 65 years of age or older in trials of treatment for cancer.

Methods: We analyzed data on 16,396 patients consecutively enrolled in 164 Southwest Oncology Group treatment trials between 1993 and 1996 according to sex, race (black or white), and age under 65 years or 65 or older. These rates were compared with the corresponding rates in the general population of patients with cancer, derived from the 1990 U.S. Census and from the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program for the period from 1992 through 1994. Fifteen types of cancer were included in the analysis.

Results: The overall proportions of women and blacks enrolled in Southwest Oncology Group trials were similar to or the same as the estimated proportions in the U.S. population of patients with cancer (women, 41 percent and 43 percent; blacks, 10 percent and 10 percent, respectively). In contrast, patients 65 years of age or older were underrepresented overall (25 percent vs. 63 percent, P<0.001) and in trials involving all 15 types of cancer except lymphoma. The underrepresentation was particularly notable in trials of treatment for breast cancer (9 percent vs. 49 percent, P<0.001). The findings were similar when data on patients who were 70 years of age or older were analyzed, when 15 trials that excluded older patients were eliminated from the analysis, and when community-based enrollment was analyzed separately from enrollment at academic centers.

Conclusions: There is substantial underrepresentation of patients 65 years of age or older in studies of treatment for cancer. The reasons should be clarified, and policies adopted to correct this underrepresentation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Black People
  • Clinical Trials as Topic / economics
  • Clinical Trials as Topic / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Neoplasms / ethnology
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Patient Selection*
  • Research Subjects*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Therapeutic Human Experimentation
  • United States / epidemiology