Elderly patients with lung cancer: biases and evidence

Curr Treat Options Oncol. 2002 Feb;3(1):85-102. doi: 10.1007/s11864-002-0045-9.


Although 60% of those diagnosed with non-small-cell lung cancer are 60 years of age or older, the elderly are often undertreated. Furthermore, those older than age 70 are under-represented in clinical research trials. Tremendous bias exists against treating the elderly; therapeutic nihilism and constrained societal/financial resources conspire to maintain the status quo. In limited stage small cell carcinoma of the lung (SCLC), a pivotal meta-analysis by Pignon et al. showed no obvious benefit for chemoradiation over chemotherapy alone in patients older than 70 years of age. However, more recent trials have revealed a clear-cut benefit for fit elderly patients to receive combined modality therapy versus chemotherapy alone, even though outcome generally remains superior for younger patients. For patients with locally advanced non-small-cell lung cancer, conflicting results exist. Individual trials evaluating combined modality therapy have shown no impairment in survival for older patients, but retrospective analyses of the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group database have demonstrated that increased therapeutic intensity does not translate into improved outcome compared with standard, single daily fraction radiation alone. Weighted survival analyses that deduct time spent with progressive disease or significant toxicity have reinforced this notion. In advanced non-small-cell lung cancer, fit elderly patients who receive platinum-based regimens do as well, or nearly as well, as patients younger than age 70, although the incidence of neutropenia and fatigue is often higher. Platinum doses above 75 mg/m2 every 3 weeks to 4 weeks are relatively more toxic in the elderly than are lower doses. Three separate studies from Italy have formally assessed the elderly. One showed superiority for single-agent vinorelbine versus best supportive care regarding survival rates and quality of life. A second showed a marked survival advantage for combination vinorelbine and gemcitabine versus vinorelbine alone. However, a much larger, more credible study demonstrated no benefit for combination vinorelbine and gemcitabine versus the constituent single agents. To date, no elderly-specific trials have addressed the role of taxanes or of platinum-based combination therapy versus non-platinum monotherapy or doublets. Comprehensive evaluation of comorbidities and their influence on outcome have not been conducted, and there are virtually no data for patients older than age 80.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung / therapy*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Neoplasm Staging
  • Prejudice*
  • Radiotherapy / methods
  • Withholding Treatment


  • Antineoplastic Agents