Mammography is generally recognized as an effective tool to detect breast cancer at an early stage. This may allow for easier and less aggressive treatment for a woman, and possibly decrease the risk of dying from breast cancer. However, there is some debate as to when a woman should start undergoing regular mammography and how frequently it should be done.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) changed its guidelines for screening mammography in 2009. It now recommends that women between the ages of 50 and 74 undergo screening mammography every 2 years. There are no firm recommendations on mammography for women under age 50 or over age 74, rather individual factors should be taken into consideration. Many medical experts recommend discontinuing regular mammograms in older women with generally poor health or chronic medical conditions that might limit life expectancy.
The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammography for women ages 45 to 54, and possibly less frequently after that. However, women who are considered to be at higher risk of developing breast cancer may require more frequent screening, or use of MRI rather than mammography. These risk factors include a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, having a family member with a known BRCA gene mutation, or a history of radiation treatment to the chest (such as for Hodgkin lymphoma).
It is important to remember the difference between a screening test and a diagnostic test. Screening tests are done for healthy individuals to detect illness before it causes symptoms. If a woman is having symptoms such as breast pain or a palpable breast lump, mammography or other diagnostic studies will likely be performed regardless of age or the amount of time since the last mammogram.