Are You Too Old for a Mammogram?

Kelly Biggs, MD

When should women stop getting mammograms? The answer depends mostly on your physical condition and attitude toward treatment.

The American Cancer Society and many other institutions recommend that women age 40 and older have a screening mammogram every year. Mammography is a critical tool in the fight against cancer, commonly associated with a 30% reduction in breast cancer deaths.

The current guidelines for annual screening mammography were originally derived from several large studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, which unequivocally demonstrated a significant health benefit to screening. But these studies were based on women up to age 70. While mammograms find many breast cancers in women over 70, women in these age groups also begin to die of heart disease and other common ailments associated with growing older.

It’s easy to demonstrate the benefit to an 80 year old woman who has a potentially lethal breast cancer surgically removed following early detection by mammogram. But because of the other lethal diseases that affect older women, it’s very difficult to prove in a research study that mammograms prolong life for a large number of women over 70.

That said, the risk of developing breast cancer generally increases with age, and mammograms are routinely finding breast cancers in older women that can be safely removed, effectively saving lives. So long as you are in good health and are willing to undergo surgery to have a tumor removed, you should continue to get mammograms.