Screening Tests for Women Archive

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Can mammograms help reveal heart disease?

Research we're watching

Mammograms, which are widely used to detect early breast cancer, may also be an effective tool for spotting early signs of heart disease, a small study suggests.

The study, in the April JACC: Cardiology Imaging, involved nearly 300 women free of heart disease. All underwent both a mammogram and a computed tomography (CT) scan of the chest. The mammograms showed calcifications (which look like a chalked line) in the arteries within the breast in just over 40% of the women. These artery calcifications are different from the irregular spots of calcifications that may indicate early cancer.

Do you need a depression screening?

News Briefs

Don't be surprised if your doctor screens you for depression at your next visit. An update to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations for screenings, published Jan. 26, 2016, in The Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that all adults 18 or older, including older adults, should be screened for depression when there are systems in place to ensure accurate diagnosis, effective treatment, and appropriate follow-up. The previous recommendations encouraged selective screening based on professional judgment and patient preferences. The new recommendation also includes pregnant and postpartum women for the first time. "Older adults often struggle with chronic disease, or the loss of a loved one, which may lead to depression," says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "Screening is just a way to open the door for people who might otherwise not get the help they need." Dr. Miller says screening can simply be asking if, over a two-week period, you have either had little interest or pleasure in doing things or felt depressed and hopeless.

Do you really need that cancer screening?


Image: Thinkstock

A research letter published online Jan. 21, 2016, in JAMA Oncology suggests that many older adults are getting unnecessary cancer screenings. Researchers looked at questionnaire answers from about 150,000 seniors (ages 65 or older) across the country, and found that about half had received prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing or mammography in the past year. But a third of those screened did not have a 10-year life expectancy, a major guideline for screening. Unnecessary screening rates varied by state—for example, 11% in Colorado and about 20% in Georgia. "Undergoing a screening test may actually cause more harm than good, especially with older patients or those with significant medical conditions," says Dr. Marc Garnick, an oncologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and editor in chief of Harvard's Annual Report on Prostate Diseases. So talk to your doctor about the guidelines. Both the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommend routine mammograms every two years for women ages 55 to 74. The ACS does not recommend mammograms in this age group if a woman has a life expectancy of less than 10 years.

For all men, the USPSTF recommends against routine PSA testing. The ACS suggests that men 50 or older (at average risk for prostate cancer) make the decision about screening with their doctor, but only if they have a life expectancy of at least 10 years, and only if they have been advised about the uncertainties, risks, and potential benefits of prostate cancer screening.

Passing your physical exam

The annual check-up is important for older men. Here is how to make the most out of your visit.

Men have a long reputation for avoiding check-ups, and that resistance tends not to soften when they are older.

"Many older men put off exams because they fear finding out something is wrong," says Dr. Suzanne Salamon, a geriatrician with Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "Also, many of today's baby boomers don't think they will have medical problems associated with age, so it can difficult for the 'younger older men,' like those in their 60s and early 70s, to see their doctor."

Is ultrasound an alternative for breast cancer screening?

Ask the doctor

Q. In your discussions of breast cancer screening, you never mention ultrasound. Is it an alternative to mammography?

A. No. Although the FDA has approved an automated breast ultrasound system to be used in addition to mammography for asymptomatic women with dense breasts, there are not enough published data about its effectiveness in screening to support its use. Moreover, ultrasound alone is not an alternative to mammography for routine breast cancer screening because ultrasound cannot pick up the small deposits of calcium (microcalcifications) that can be a sign of breast cancer.

Colon cancer testing: What's in it for you?


Image: iStock

Being checked for hidden colorectal cancer is a smart bet, though it's hard to say whether it will ultimately extend your life span.

Recently, the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable—a national organization of medical groups, health care providers, government agencies, and patient advocates—launched the "80% by 2018" initiative. The goal is to convince more people to get screened for hidden colorectal cancer. Right now, about 65% of Americans do so.

What do the new mammography guidelines mean for you?


Image: Bigstock

Women can devise their own breast cancer screening schedules based on their risk and preferences.

If you tend to "go by the book" for preventive health care, you probably get a flu shot each fall, have a colonoscopy every 10 years, and generally follow the experts' recommendations. But what do you do about mammograms? For decades, the two most influential expert groups—the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF)—haven't agreed about when to start having mammograms, how often to have them, or how long to keep on having them. Although the two groups come a little closer together with their most recent guidelines, they still disagree about breast cancer screening for women ages 45 through 54.

Which mammogram guidelines should I follow?

Ask the doctor

Q. I'm a 48-year-old woman, and I've never had a mammogram. Different guidelines seem to say different things. What do you recommend?

A. You're right, there are several different guidelines. Probably the two most often consulted by doctors are those of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the American Cancer Society (ACS). Recent changes by the ACS bring its recommendations nearer to those of USPSTF. They disagree slightly about you. ACS says you should have a mammogram (because you are over 45), but USPSTF says to begin at age 50. Both expert committees stress that these recommendations apply only to women who are not at extra risk of breast cancer (extra risk includes, for example, having a parent, sibling, or child who's had breast cancer). If a woman is at extra risk, she should start getting mammograms earlier.

Which tests do you need in 2016?


Make sure you get your blood pressure measured at least once a year.
Image: Thinkstock

Screenings for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer aren't always routine.

Changes to mammogram screening recommendations


Image: Thinkstock

News briefs

The guidelines for routine breast cancer screenings are changing again. The American Cancer Society (ACS) published its new recommendations Oct. 20, 2015, in The Journal of the American Medical Association, suggesting that women at average risk for breast cancer now wait until age 45 to begin getting yearly mammograms (it had been age 40) and then get yearly mammograms until age 54. After that, the ACS now recommends that average-risk women ages 55 to 74 transition to screening every other year (instead of annually). It's a big shift for the ACS, and the recommendations are now more in line with the guidelines that came from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) in 2009, which recommended mammograms every two years for average-risk women ages 50 to 74 and advise against routine screening before age 50 in these women. The USPSTF guidelines have been controversial since they came out. But no one is saying that women at increased risk for breast cancer should wait to get a mammogram; it's a decision that must be made by a woman and her doctor, based on her risk factors. One other big change to the ACS guidelines: that women continue screening mammography only if they have a life expectancy of 10 years or longer.

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