Objective: To assess the reasons for the dramatic surge in prostate cancer incidence from 1986 to 1991.
Design: Population-based study of incidence rates and procedures used to detect and diagnose prostate cancer derived from Medicare claims data and the National Cancer Institute's Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program from 1986 to 1991.
Setting: Four SEER areas (Connecticut; Atlanta, Ga; Detroit, Mich; and Seattle--Puget Sound, Wash) covering approximately 6% of the US population.
Participants: A 5% random sample of male fee-for-service Medicare beneficiaries aged 65 years and older without cancer, and all men with prostate cancer diagnosed at 65 years of age and older residing in the four areas.
Main outcome measures: The age-adjusted rates of prostate cancer incidence, prostate needle biopsy, transurethral resection of the prostate, serum prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing, and transrectal ultrasound.
Results: The age-adjusted incidence rate of prostate cancer among men aged 65 years and older in the four SEER areas rose 82% from 1986 to 1991, with the largest annual increases occurring in 1990 (20%) and 1991 (19%). Prostate needle biopsy rates increased while the use of transurethral resection of the prostate declined from 1986 to 1991. The rising needle biopsy rate has been driven by an exponential increase in PSA testing in the general population from 1988 to 1991 and, to a much lesser extent, the increasing use of transrectal ultrasound since 1986. The use of PSA or transrectal ultrasound has increased across age and race groups and in different geographic areas. However, there remain wide geographic variations in the use of PSA screening.
Conclusions: The recent dramatic epidemic of prostate cancer is likely the result of the increasing detection of tumors resulting from increased PSA screening. The magnitude and rapidity of the incidence rise suggest that changes in the intensity of medical surveillance is the most plausible explanation for this trend.
Implications: The rapid diffusion of screening interventions that have the ability to detect latent asymptomatic disease leads to important concerns regarding costs and patient quality of life for men aged 65 years and older. Geographic variability in the adoption of PSA testing underscores uncertainty and disagreement about its value for reducing prostate cancer mortality. More research is required to determine the effectiveness of screening for prostate cancer.