Should we have annual mammograms?

A new study has found that annual mammograms beginning at age 40 prevent the greatest number of breast cancer deaths.

The research from Weill Cornell Medicine investigators was published in the journal Cancer and found that annual screening beginning at age 40 resulted in 40% fewer breast cancer deaths.

New Zealand women currently have access to free biennial screening between the ages of 45 and 69 and this latest research has ignited the debate as to whether this is good enough.

The study used computer modelling to estimate the effects of three different screening schemes using data from US women born in either 1960 or 1970. The three different screening measures explored were:

  • annual screening starting at age 40 years
  • annual screening at ages 45 to 54 years and then biennial screening at ages 55 to 79 years
  • biennial screening at ages 50 to 74 years.

The researchers found that that the recommendation for annual screening beginning at 40 led to a nearly 40% reduction in deaths ­compared with women who did not undergo any screening – the greatest reduction of all recommendations.

In comparison, annual screening between the ages of 45 and 55 followed by biennial screening led to a 30% reduction in death, while biennial screening from age 50 to 74 led to a reduction in death of up to 27%.  

Lead researcher Associate Professor of Radiology Dr Elizabeth Arleo says there is a lot of focus on the risks of screening, but very little focus on the benefits of screening.

“This is an important study with a bottom line that annual screening starting at age 40 saves the most lives,” she says.

“While some may consider cutting back on screening to lower costs, our research shows that, in order to save the most lives from breast cancer deaths, annual screening mammography should start at age 40. We need to promote this recommendation,” Dr Arleo says.

BCAC chair, Libby Burgess, says the organisation urges all eligible women to take part in the free BreastScreen Aotearoa programme, but advises women to begin screening at age 40 if they can.

“It’s fantastic that we have a free screening programme in New Zealand, but BCAC doesn’t believe it reaches as far as it needs to. We’d like to see the age limits extended at the lower and upper ends to 40 and 75 respectively.

“But this research clearly shows that annual screening is better than biennial screening and that’s something we should consider in New Zealand.

“Our advice to women would be that if you can afford to pay for annual screening from the age of 40, then you should do so. But if you can’t, then this research also highlights the vital importance of screening full-stop. Regular screening does saves lives,” Libby says.

For more information on the BreastScreen Aotearoa programme visit their website: http://www.timetoscreen.nz/breast-screening/

29 August 2017