Study finds minimal benefit to screening mammograms before age 40

Although the debate continues over whether routine screening mammograms are necessary before age 50, a new study concludes that the test is even less helpful for asymptomatic women under age 40.

The study, published in this week's Journal of the National Cancer Institute, looked at 117,738 women younger than age 40 with no family history of breast cancer. Women between ages 35 and 39 underwent the highest number of mammograms, yet for every 10,000 women screened in this age group, 1,266 would be called back for additional tests and imaging--and just 16 cancers would be found.  The risk more than doubles for women ages 45 to 49, and continues to increase with age.

"The good news is that young women don't get breast cancer at high rates," says Bonnie C. Yankaskas, lead author of the study, and part of the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium, adding that for women younger than 40, "you're looking for a needle in a haystack." 

Experts at the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Society, and American College of Radiology agree with the author's contention that women without a strong family history of breast cancer (i.e., carrying the BRAC1 or BRAC2 gene) or symptoms may be better off waiting until age 40 to undergo the test.

"We have been concerned that some have been encouraging that screening begin at younger and younger ages, when the science does not support it as beneficial," Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the ACS wrote in a statement. He also notes "it is important to remember that this is a study of women who have no symptoms, and are not at high risk of breast cancer."

To learn more:
- read this Associated Press article
- read this review in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute
- read this piece
- read this HealthDay News article