Women Urged To Wait To Get Mammograms Until Age 50

“Early detection” has been the rallying cry for many breast cancer survivors and organizations, and for years that meant getting a yearly mammogram once a woman turned 40. Now, however, those guidelines have changed. Most women should start breast cancer screening at the age of 50 instead of 40, 50- to 74-year-old women should have mammograms every two years, and doctors should stop teaching women to examine their breasts regularly, according to the United States Preventative Services Task Force, an independent committee of prevention and primary care experts appointed by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. These new guidelines reverse the task force’s previous recommendation from seven years ago that said women age 40 or older should have mammograms every one or two years. The new recommendations don’t apply to women who are at a greater risk for breast cancer because they have a gene mutation or have had extensive chest radiation.

The task force says the new guidelines are meant to reduce the potential harm caused by over-screening. Experts say the screening tests themselves can be harmful and can lead to other unnecessary tests like biopsies, which stress patients out. And mammograms may locate tumors, yes, but tumors that grow so slowly that they might not have been detected or caused harm in the patient’s lifetime, resulting in unnecessary treatment. Basically, the panel feels the harm of early screening outweighs the benefits of reducing the breast cancer death rate by 15 percent.

When I heard about the change in breast cancer screening this morning, I thought this was surely going to benefit the health insurance companies at the expense of women. But I know now that private insurers are required by law to provide mammograms to women in their 40s in every state except Utah, and Medicare has to pay for annual mammograms, so I’m slightly less skeptical. But it seems a strange coincidence that these guidelines would change at a time when the country is working towards universal health care. What are your thoughts? [NY Times]