Harvard Women's Health Watch

Are screening mammograms worth it after age 70?

For decades the controversy over breast cancer screening has centered around the age at which women should begin having mammograms. Recently, a new question has arisen: When should women stop regular screening? A report from the Netherlands suggests an answer: before age 75.

In the study, published in the Sept. 15, 2014, issue of the journal BMJ, researchers from Leiden University looked at the effects of raising the age limit for screening from 69 to 75 in 1995. Using the data from— the National Cancer Registry, the researchers calculated that for every advanced cancer detected by screening, about 20 early-stage cancers were found. About 60% of early cancers were ductal carcinomas in situ (precancerous lesions) or stage I cancers (small tumors confined to the breast).

Whether those cancers would have progressed during the women's lifetimes is questionable. However, cancer detection usually means cancer treatment, and in older women who are more vulnerable to side effects of radiation and chemotherapy, the treatment may not provide enough benefit to justify its impact on the quality of life.

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