Overall, women who had at least three mammograms prior to being diagnosed had a 49 percent reduced risk of dying from breast cancer. The greatest reduction was seen in women ages 70 to 75, where death was reduced by 84 percent. Among women ages 50 to 69, the reduction was nearly 40 percent.
The Dutch government "considers it imperative that everyone eligible for a screening program is given the opportunity to participate," Otto said.
Free mammograms are offered to Dutch women 50 and older every two years, and this study shows that women who took part in the screening program cut their risk of dying from breast cancer by half, Otto said.
The Dutch research comes at a time when the benefits of mammograms are being questioned in the United States. A series of contradictory findings, debated among doctors and patients, leave many women bewildered about how often they should be screened for breast cancer. New federal guidelines in 2009 called for less frequent mammograms, and a controversial Dartmouth College analysis in October criticized breast cancer survivors for saying that having a mammogram had saved their life.
That report, by H. Gilbert Welch, M.D., suggested that only a small percentage of those diagnosed with breast cancer were really helped by screening, a conclusion some experts questioned. According to his analysis, at most 13 percent of those diagnosed with breast cancer had been helped by having a mammogram.
"To criticize women who had their breast cancer diagnosed by mammography and say they're delusional because they believed it saved their life — I'm not sure what you gain by that criticism. It seems condescending," Smith says.
What the Dutch study shows, he adds, is that mammogram screening is doing what it's supposed to do — "reduce the rate of advanced disease."
Also of interest: Your guide to screenings and vaccines. >>
Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the AARP Bulletin.