A new study from Harvard University Medical School adds another element to the ongoing question over when women should start getting regular mammograms.
The study, published this week in the journal Cancer, found that many women dying of breast cancer in their 40s had never been screened. The study’s authors conclude that “to maximize mortality reduction and life-years gained, initiation of regular screening before age 50 years should be encouraged.”
The study's results come out amid a backdrop of different recommendations from cancer organizations. Current guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force say that most women should wait until age 50 to start regular mammograms.
However, a number of other organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American College of Radiology, recommend women start at age 40.
Dr. Wendy DeMartini, a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and a UW Health Breast Center radiologist, said mammograms have a proven benefit.
"There have been lots of studies of screening mammography in the United States and other countries, and they very clearly show that mammography decreases death from breast cancer for women in their 40s, and women in their 50s, 60s and 70s," she said.
DeMartini said organizations that issue guidelines weigh the benefits of mammograms against the down sides, including false positive and false negative results, which she said are relatively rare.
"The way that different societies have decided to weight those advantages and limitations has determined what recommendations they decided to make," she said.
Part of the argument against doing breast cancer screenings for younger women is that they have faster-growing cancers that might rise between mammograms and progress quickly -- taking away the advantages of early detection.
DeMartini said there's still value in the mammograms.
"If we don't do mammography at all in those women, we're really missing the opportunity that we could with screening to find at least half of the breast cancers in those women," she said.
She notes that the guidelines in question apply to women who are not in a special risk group. For people with known genetic predispositions to cancer, or with relatives with cancer, earlier screening and medical consultation is needed.
"This group of women does have a different set of recommendations, which include having a mammogram once a year, typically beginning around the age of thirty, and later adding to that a breast MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging examination," she said.