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J Natl Cancer Inst. 2005 Aug 3;97(15):1132-7.

Prostate-specific antigen levels in the United States: implications of various definitions for abnormal.

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  • 1VA Outcomes Group, Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, White River Junction, VT 05009, USA.



The finding that some men with a normal prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level (i.e., less than 4 ng/mL) nonetheless have microscopic evidence of prostate cancer has led to some suggestions that the threshold defining abnormal should be lowered to 2.5 ng/mL. We examined the effect of this lower threshold on the number of American men who would be labeled abnormal by a single PSA test.


We obtained PSA data on a nationally representative sample of American men 40 years of age and older with no history of prostate cancer and no current inflammation or infection of the prostate gland (n = 1308) from the 2001-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. We obtained data on the 10-year risk of prostate cancer death in the pre-PSA era from DevCan, the National Cancer Institute's software to calculate the probability of dying of cancer.


Based on NHANES data, approximately 1.5 million American men aged 40 to 69 years have a PSA level over 4.0 ng/mL. Lowering the threshold to 2.5 ng/mL would label an additional 1.8 million men as abnormal, if all men were screened. For men aged 70 years or older, the corresponding numbers are 1.5 and 1.2 million. The proportion of the population affected by different thresholds would vary with age. Among men in their 60s, for example, 17% have a PSA level over 2.5 ng/mL, 5.7% have a PSA level over 4.0 ng/mL, and 1.7% have a PSA level over 10.0 ng/mL. For context, only 0.9% of men in their 60s are expected to die from prostate cancer in the next 10 years.


Lowering the PSA threshold to 2.5 ng/mL would double the number of men defined as abnormal, to up to 6 million. Until there is evidence that screening is effective, increasing the number of men recommended for prostate biopsy--and the number potentially diagnosed and treated unnecessarily--would be a mistake.

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