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Breast Cancer Health Center

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Mammograms Benefit Older Women

Mammograms Benefit Older Women

WebMD Health News

Nov. 19, 2002 -- A new study provides the strongest evidence to date on the benefits of routine mammography screening for women who, demographically speaking, are most vulnerable to breast cancer and least likely to routinely be screened for it -- those in their 70s.

Although mammography guidelines in the U.S. have no age "cutoff," most efforts are focused on annual screenings for younger women, particularly those in their 40s and 50s. As a result, many older women fail to get them.

"But what we were surprised to find is that when this very oldest group use mammograms, the benefits are greater for them than for younger women," says lead researcher James Goodwin, MD, director of the Sealy Center on Aging at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

He collected data from more than 12,000 breast cancer patients, all age 69 or older when diagnosed. He found that the very oldest patients -- those who were 75 or older when diagnosed -- in general had larger and more advanced tumors than in women whose cancer was detected between ages 69 to 74. However, the older women who had at least one annual mammogram had cancers that were similar in stage and size to that of the younger women.

His study, published in the Nov. 19 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, did not examine the death rate of either group. "But this suggests a strong benefit of mammogram in women who are at an age when they are more vulnerable to breast cancer," Goodwin tells WebMD. The breast cancer rate rises each decade until women reach their 80s, when it plateaus.

Now the only question left is, how strong is the benefit of that finding?

"There is no doubt that mammogram can detect cancer tumors earlier -- usually, it can be expected to find a cancer five or 10 years before it's going to kill a patient," says mammography expert D. David Dershaw, MD, FACR, director of breast imaging at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. "The question is, how useful is that early diagnosis in someone who is likely to be dead of something else within five or 10 years?"

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