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Breast Cancer Health Center

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Mammography Significantly Cuts Risk of Advanced Cancer in Elderly

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.

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