Objective: To examine whether presentation of older people with thick melanoma is a result of the site and histological type or of their reduced ability to identify melanoma.
Design and setting: Retrospective analysis of the Newcastle Melanoma Unit patient database.
Patients: 2154 patients with melanoma for whom complete data (histological type, thickness and site of melanoma) were available and who presented from February 1981 to April 1997.
Main outcome measures: Histological type and site of melanoma in older (> or = 50 years) versus younger men and women; frequency with which these groups identified melanoma and the first changes of melanoma that were noticed.
Results: Patients aged > or = 50 years, particularly men, were more likely to present with thicker lesions. Older men and, to a lesser extent, older women were more likely to present with nodular melanoma, which were more frequent on the scalp and face in older, compared with younger, men, and scalp and back in older men compared with older women. Failure to identify melanoma was associated with older age, sites on the scalp and back and histological type of the lesion, but was independent of sex once histological type, age, site and thickness were taken into account. Multivariate analysis indicated that the association of older age of patients with failure to identify melanoma applied irrespective of the site, type and thickness of their melanoma.
Conclusion: The higher frequency of thick melanoma in older people is accounted for by an increased proportion of nodular melanoma and decreased ability to recognise the changes of melanoma. These findings have important implications for examination of older patients by doctors and for design of strategies for early detection of melanoma in this age group.