The goal of mammography screening is to find breast cancer when it's curable. "We know that mammograms can prevent women from dying of breast cancer," says Kerlikowske. "But many women don't need one every year, they can have it done every two years." She adds that women with a history of breast cancer should get mammograms every year.
The chance of getting breast cancer goes up with age. If you start at age 50, following U.S. Preventive Task Force recommendations for routine screening, and have a mammogram every other year through age 74, "you'll have 12 mammograms in a lifetime. That's reasonable," says Kerlikowske. "It maximizes your chance of benefit and minimizes the harms of false positives and biopsies."
"If there's ever a message that should be delivered, it's that women between the ages of 50 and 70 or 75 should have regular mammograms," says Nancy Davidson, M.D., director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, who did not participate in the study. She adds that how often to get a mammogram is a decision that should be made between a woman and her doctor, but "there's no question that women in this age group are the ones most likely to benefit from screening mammography."
Note: Medicare covers a mammogram once a year for all women over 40.
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Nissa Simon, in New Haven, Conn., writes about health and science.