Women Age 66 and Older May Be Able to Get Mammograms Every Other Year, Study Suggests

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The issue of breast cancer screening in older women has been a hot topic in recent years. In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended that mammograms shouldn't be encouraged in women age 75 and older because they might not benefit from the screenings.

Several medical organizations, including the American Cancer Society, didn't agree with these USPSTF conclusions and ignored the recommendations. The recommendations were very controversial and were NOT adopted.

Now, a study suggests that getting a mammogram every other year offers just as many benefits as getting a mammogram every year for women age 66 and older.

The research was published online on Feb. 5, 2013 by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Read the abstract of "Screening Outcomes in Older U.S. Women Undergoing Multiple mammograms in Community Practice: Does Interval, Age or Comorbidity Affect Tumor Characteristics or False Positive Rates?"

Because the USPSTF recommendations sparked so much discussion, researchers decided to see if older women got benefits from mammograms, and, if so, how often the mammograms should be done.

The researchers looked at mammogram results from 2,993 women diagnosed with breast cancer and 137,949 women who were not diagnosed with breast cancer. The women were age 66 to 89 and the mammograms were done from 1999 to 2006. According to the researchers, the information is the largest available screening mammography data set in the United States.

They found no difference in rates of later-stage breast cancer between women who had mammograms every year and women who had mammograms every other year.

The researchers did find a difference in false positive rates:

  • 48% of women screened every year had false positive results
  • 29% of women screened every other year had false positive results

A false positive is an abnormal area that looks like a cancer but turns out to be normal. Besides worrying about being diagnosed with breast cancer, a false positive means more tests and follow-up visits, which can be stressful.

Women age 66 will live another 22 years on average. And many women aren’t average in terms of health status, life expectancy, or risk of dying of breast cancer or another disease. Nearly all experts would agree that annual screening doesn't make sense in an older woman who wouldn't want to be treated for breast cancer because of personal preferences or other health matters. Still, many women age 66 or older are in reasonably good health and would want to be treated should they be diagnosed.

Breastcancer.org believes that the importance of diagnosing breast cancer early, when it's most treatable, doesn't get any less important as a woman gets older. Regular screening mammograms make sense for older women who are in reasonably good health and who would want to be treated for breast cancer if diagnosed.

For more information on mammograms and other tests to detect breast cancer, visit the Breastcancer.org Breast Cancer Tests: Screening, Diagnosis, and Monitoring pages.

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