For decades, women were urged to have annual mammograms -- tests that screen for breast cancer and abnormalities -- starting at age 40, and then yearly afterward. Most women don't exactly enjoy undergoing a mammogram, as the standard film test involves squishing your breasts in between two plates. So women rejoiced to hear the latest medical thinking: that they may not need mammograms quite that frequently.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in 2009 updated its recommendations to biennial film mammograms and only for women ages 50-74. The reason for the change? The Task Force says studies show that while mammograms do a good job detecting early-stage breast cancer, they don't spot advanced cases any earlier. False positives, common in mammography, are also more typical in those 40-49; these erroneous results can cause much anxiety, plus unnecessary additional procedures such as more imaging or biopsies. Finally, some of the women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and subsequently treated may not have needed the treatment, as their cancer may have been slow-growing and would never have resulted in death.Screening every other year, says the Task Force, maintains the benefits of mammograms while reducing its harmful effects by nearly half [sources: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, Pruthi].
While the evidence may seem compelling, not everyone agrees. The American Cancer Society, for example, continues to push for yearly mammograms starting at 40 [source: Pruthi]. Best advice? Consult with your physician and make your own decision.