Fewer mammograms mean fewer needless mastectomies

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Fewer women in their 40s are having mammograms, a new study from the Mayo Clinic reports and this is good news.

In 2009, a federal advisory panel recommended that women should wait until age 50 rather than age 40, as was previously recommended before beginning regular mammographic screenings for breast cancer. The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) based its new guidelines on years of data and statistical modeling revealing that screening younger women does more harm than good. Over the past several decades, breast cancer has been over-diagnosed and over-treated. But, as the Mayo study finds, in time this trend could be reversed.

Presented last week at an annual research meeting, the study analyzed data from 100 health plans across the U.S. Looking specifically at the number of mammograms performed from January 2006 to December of 2010, researchers found a drop of nearly 6 percent among women ages 40 to 49. Meanwhile, the number of mammograms among women ages 50 to 64 remained steady, despite the same panel s recommendation that women need only be screened every two years.

"We applaud this news," says ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan. She notes that, while too many people still believe there's no harm in getting a mammogram, the task force study demonstrated that this is clearly not the case. "We now have reason to hope that the influence of the USPSTF guidelines will only increase, meaning that we'll see a decrease in the number of women who unnecessarily undergo procedures such as radiation, mastectomy, or lumpectomy."