The Question for Women: When to Start Regular Mammograms?


A national task force recommendation announced this week advises women in their 40s, who have a minimal risk of breast cancer, to not get regular mammogram screenings until age 50. This may be confusing for many women who previously have been advised to start getting annual mammograms when they turn 40. 

So which is it? Both the American Cancer Society and a highly-regarded breast care expert who chairs the national mammography accreditation committee of the American College of Radiology, say that the United States Preventative Services Task Force missed some key data in reaching their recommendation. As a result, both the American Cancer Society and Brett Parkinson, MD, director of breast imaging at Intermountain Medical Center, say women with minimal risk should continue to start annual mammograms at age 40 – despite the task force's recommendation. 

“I disagree with the task force’s draft recommendations,” says Dr. Parkinson, a radiologist who is a nationally recognized expert in diagnosing and treating breast cancer. “The task force over-estimated the rate of over-diagnosis, has inappropriately defined a false positive examination, and has exaggerated the harms, psychological and physical, of being recalled from a screening study,."

Dr. Parkinson, along with breast imaging experts from throughout the country, will continue to encourage women with minimal risk to start annual mammography screening at age 40.

Why at that age? One in six women diagnosed with breast cancer are between the ages 40 to 49, and 40 percent of the years of life lost to breast cancer are in women who were diagnosed while they were in their 40s.

Dr. Parkinson says death from breast cancer can be avoided by early screening and detection, which results in less invasive treatments involving surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. In fact, the death rate from breast cancer has dropped by 35 percent since the use of screening mammography expanded in the late 1980s.

“The benefits of starting breast cancer screenings at age 40 outweigh the risks associated with the process,” said Dr. Parkinson. “I feel the task force didn't address the substantial harms of not screening, which include an increased likelihood of advanced breast cancer and death.”