Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Breast Cancer Health Center

Font Size
A
A
A

Mammography Significantly Cuts Risk of Advanced Cancer in Elderly

By
WebMD Health News

Feb. 28, 2000 (Atlanta) -- While fewer women 70 and older receive mammograms, a new study shows that they -- like younger women -- can benefit from having breast cancer detected in its early, potentially curable stages. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in women over age 65, according to a study published in this month's American Journal of Medicine.

In the study, a review of nearly 700,000 Medicare records showed "a clear benefit [of mammography] in women in this age group," lead author Rebecca Smith-Bindman, MD, assistant professor of radiology, epidemiology, and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, tells WebMD. "It's pretty impressive."

While a number of studies have looked at mammography's success rate in diagnosing cancer, there have not been sufficient studies focusing on women over age 65. Only two studies have included women between ages 70 and 74, and they were too small to provide meaningful results, she says.

"This is important, because we need to know at what age we should stop giving women mammograms. I think it's obvious to everyone that if you screen a 90-year-old woman for breast cancer, you're probably not helping [her] very much," says Smith-Bindman, who is currently on sabbatical as visiting professor at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine in the Royal London School of Medicine.

Smith-Bindman and colleagues reviewed two years' worth of Medicare records of 690,993 California women between 66 and 79 years old. They found a 43% reduction in advanced breast cancer among those who had mammograms. They also found that small, early cancers were 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed among women who were screened.

"Mammography is supposed to find cancer early, when it's not symptomatic, but we found a lot of small cancers. It means there might be a whole reservoir of breast cancer that wasn't going to hurt women [if it went untreated] because these women probably would have died from heart disease or other forms of cardiovascular disease. The problem is, some of those cancers would have hurt women. Once you find them, there's no way to tell which are the harmful ones and which would be relatively silent," says Smith-Bindman.

While all women who have cancer need to be treated, she says, "the dilemma is that to some degree you are overdiagnosing cancer in elderly women if you screen them. We're definitely helping women by finding these cancers, but it's not clear exactly what the trade-off is."

A woman in her 70s, who is otherwise healthy, has a long life expectancy and would clearly benefit from mammography, says Smith-Bindman. "On the other hand, if she's a woman with a lot of chronic illnesses, she will probably not benefit from screening. In that woman, you may be finding small cancers that really will not shorten her life. She likely will die from cardiovascular disease, heart disease [or] another chronic disease."

Today on WebMD

Breast Cancer Health Check
HEALTH CHECK
breast cancer overview slideshow
SLIDESHOW
 
cancer fighting foods
SLIDESHOW
senior woman
Article
 
Breast Cancer Treatments Improving
VIDEO
Resolved To Quit Smoking
SLIDESHOW
 
Woman getting mammogram
Article
Screening Tests for Women
SLIDESHOW
 
ovarian cancer overview slideshow
SLIDESHOW
serious woman
Article
 
what is your cancer risk
HEALTH CHECK
10 Ways to Revitalize Slideshow
SLIDESHOW