Conflicting schools of thought on when to begin getting annual mammograms can leave women confused and frustrated. Some doctors and organizations recommend that women start screenings at age 40 while others say it is safe to wait until age 50. There is no right answer. Each woman should evaluate her personal situation and decide when to begin mammograms.
Begin Screenings at 50
Some doctors believe that women should begin getting annual mammograms at age 50. By 50, most women are in the beginning stages of menopause. During menopause, the breast tissue changes and becomes less dense. This makes it easier to spot changes, lumps and possible tumors during a mammogram. A woman who begins screenings earlier than 50 is more likely to get a false reading--either false or positive. By 50, mammogram accuracy jumps from 75 percent to 90 percent. The National Cancer Institute also worries that a woman who begins mammograms too early and has no signs of cancer will stop having annual screenings in her 50s, when she is more likely to develop breast cancer.
A woman who has had healthy pregnancies in her 20s, has no history of breast cancer in her family and has no breast abnormalities can safely put off her first mammogram until her 50th birthday. She should not neglect monthly self breast checks, however. If she notices unusual lumps or changes, she should see her doctor for further investigation.
Begin Screenings At 40
The American Cancer Society recommends that women begin getting screened for breast cancer at age 40 in the belief that earlier mammograms lead to a higher likelihood of catching breast cancer in its earliest stages, when it is most treatable. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology is also in agreement with this stance.
Some health insurance companies will not pay for mammograms for younger women, however. If you must pay out of pocket for a mammogram, wait until you are 50 unless you are at a higher risk for breast cancer. Consider getting a mammogram in your 40s if you did not have your first child until you were over 30 or have a history of breast cancer in your family. Also, early screenings are recommended if you begin menopause early. During menopause, breast density changes and this makes it easier to detect any abnormalities during a mammogram.