If you are confused about the conflicting advice on breast screening (mammography) guidelines, you’re not alone. Women are asking:

  • What’s the best age to begin breast screening?
  • How often should I have breast screening?
  • Is there a time that I’ll no longer need breast screening?

“Most physicians, including myself, the radiologists at YRMC’s BreastCare Center and the American College of Radiology, recommend annual screening mammography starting at age 40,” said Michael G. Macon, MD, Breast Surgeon and Medical Director of the BreastCare Program at Yavapai Regional Medical Center (YRMC).

At what age can annual breast screenings stop? That depends on the woman, according to the experts at YRMC’s BreastCare Program.

“There are many women in their mid-70s who will live 15 to 20 more years,” Dr. Macon said. “If those women are going to act on the information from the mammogram, they should continue annual breast screenings. However, different organizations have different recommendations.”

A Controversial Recommendation

In January 2016, the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force (USPSTF) announced dramatic changes to its breast screening guidelines. The USPSTF – an independent group of preventive and evidence-based medicine experts – recommended that breast screening begin at age 50 and end when a woman reaches age 74. The group also recommended breast screening take place every two years, as opposed to annually.

The USPSTF’s recommendations are based on statistics that show more women can be saved at lesser cost when breast screening begins later in life. As women age, they are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

“The USPSTF is studying millions of women and making a recommendation based on data,” said Dr. Macon. “The difference is that physicians look at one woman at a time and ask: ‘What is best for this patient?’”

Members of the medical community were alarmed by the USPSTF recommendations. They pointed out that breast screening mammography beginning at age 40 has been shown to reduce deaths due to breast cancer.

Additionally, while breast cancer is more common as women get older, in younger women breast cancer tends to be more aggressive. Clinicians also argued that these more aggressive cancers need to be detected when the cancer is most treatable. Breast screening annually – rather than every two years as recommended by the USPSTF – would catch cancer earlier, when cure is most likely.

Online Tools Assess Your Breast Cancer Risk 

Breast screening recommendations are based on women at average risk for breast cancer. How can you learn your individual risk for breast cancer? You can start with an assessment tool. The Gail Model and Tyrer-Cuzick Model Breast Cancer Risk Evaluation Tool estimate the likelihood of a woman developing breast cancer within five or 10 years of her current age and during her lifetime.

Take Action to Manage Your Health

“It’s difficult for an organization in and of itself to make a nuanced recommendation on breast screening that works for all women,” said Dr. Macon. “Statistically, the USPSTF recommendations may make sense as a public health recommendation, but that doesn’t give a specific woman information on how she should act.”