Screening mammograms are breast X-rays that can detect breast cancer before it causes symptoms. Experts agree that mammograms save lives. But there’s a difference of opinion about the best age to start getting them. In guidelines from different groups within the past few years, the recommended starting age varies from 40 to 50. So when should you get a mammogram?
Balancing benefits and risks
Mammograms reduce deaths from breast cancer. That’s a huge benefit. Yet women ages 50 and older have the most to gain. For those ages 40 to 49, the number of deaths prevented is smaller.
Mammograms have risks as well. They sometimes produce false positives—results that appear abnormal when no cancer is present. False positives can cause anxiety and lead to more testing.
Another risk is overdiagnosis—finding and treating noninvasive breast cancer that never would have caused problems. This isn’t harmless because unnecessary treatment has risks of its own.
What the experts recommend
The American Cancer Society says that screening mammograms should be an option starting at age 40, and all women should be getting them by age 45. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, on the other hand, says that all women should start mammograms by age 50.
Both groups agree on a key point: You should discuss this issue with your doctor. If you have risk factors for breast cancer, such as a family history of the disease, earlier mammograms may be particularly important. Your doctor can help you choose the right starting age for you.
Learn more about mammograms
The Radiological Society of North America offers this video overview of mammography.