In 1966, Houston radiologist Robert Egan created what we know today as the modern mammogram. Utilizing x-ray imaging specifically formulated for breast tissue, Egan paved the way for the hundreds of millions of women who have since had mammograms. Fast forward over 50 years, and while the principle of mammography remains the same, some guidelines have changed.
In January 2016, a panel of medical experts known as the United States Preventative Services Task Force, or USPSTF, recommended women need fewer mammograms than had been previously advised. Before 2016, it was widely believed that once a woman reached 40 years of age, she needed yearly mammograms. That is no longer the case.
The new guidelines are based on age and apply to women at average risk of developing breast cancer. Typically, the current recommendation is for women between the ages of 50 and 74 to have a mammogram every other year. Furthermore, the recommended age for a first mammogram is no longer 40 years old, but instead anywhere between 40 and 49.
Evidence has shown that breast cancer occurs much less often in women in their 40s, and regular exposure to unnecessary radiation can actually do more harm than good. With that said, many experts believe the risks of yearly mammograms for younger women to outweigh the benefits. Plus, younger women have a higher risk of receiving a false positive on a mammogram, which can then open them up to more costly and potentially unnecessary follow-up procedures.
There is also a risk of finding in younger women cancer that poses no immediate health risk, but must still be removed or addressed with lumpectomy, radiation therapy, or hormone therapy. Interestingly, doctors no longer recommend breast exams. It is still important, however, to report any abnormalities or concerns to your doctor.
Although doctors now recommend starting mammograms later in life, women may still be able to start screening as early as age 40, and have annual mammograms, should they wish.
The new guidelines, importantly, are not uniform and are for women who are at average risk of developing breast cancer. If you have a family history of breast cancer or a breast condition and believe you are at a higher risk than the average person, talk to your doctor about when you should start screening.