Effects of age on the performance of common diagnostic tests for pulmonary embolism

Am J Med. 2000 Oct 1;109(5):357-61. doi: 10.1016/s0002-9343(00)00493-9.


Purpose: The diagnosis of pulmonary embolism in the elderly is often difficult because of comorbid medical conditions, and perhaps also because diagnostic tests have a lower yield. We analyzed the diagnostic performance of common diagnostic tests for pulmonary embolism in different age groups.

Methods: We analyzed data from two large studies that enrolled 1,029 consecutive patients presenting to the emergency department with clinically suspected pulmonary embolism. The clinical probability of pulmonary embolism (high [>/=80%], intermediate, or low [</=20%]) was estimated by the treating physician. All patients underwent a sequential diagnostic protocol, including ventilation-perfusion lung scan, measurement of plasma D-dimer level, lower limb venous compression ultrasonography, and pulmonary angiography if the noninvasive work-up was inconclusive.

Results: The prevalence of pulmonary embolism increased progressively, from 12% in patients <40 years of age to 44% in those >/=80 years of age. The positive predictive value of a high clinical probability of pulmonary embolism was greater in the elderly (71% to 78% in those >/=60 years old versus 40% to 64% in those </=59 years old). The sensitivity of D-dimer testing was 100% in all age groups, but its specificity decreased markedly with age, from 67% in those </=40 years old to 10% in those >/=80 years old. The diagnostic yield of lower limb compression ultrasonography was greater in the elderly. The proportion of lung scans that were diagnostic (normal, near-normal, or high probability) decreased from 68% to 42% with increasing age.

Conclusions: Age affects the performance of common diagnostic tests for pulmonary embolism and should be kept in mind when evaluating patients suspected of having this condition.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Canada
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Fibrin Fibrinogen Degradation Products / analysis
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prevalence
  • Pulmonary Embolism / blood
  • Pulmonary Embolism / diagnosis*
  • Pulmonary Embolism / diagnostic imaging
  • Risk
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Switzerland
  • Ultrasonography / methods
  • Ventilation-Perfusion Ratio


  • Fibrin Fibrinogen Degradation Products
  • fibrin fragment D