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Mon 1 Jan 2007 02:53 PM

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Mammograms for under-50s questioned

Screening women under 50 years old for breast cancer does not significantly reduce deaths from the disease, claim British researchers writing in The Lancet.

Screening women under 50 years old for breast cancer does not significantly reduce deaths from the disease, claim British researchers writing in The Lancet.

In this latest study, the team suggest that annual mammograms beginning at the age of 40 will save only four lives for every 1,000 women screened. Consequently, the benefit must be weighted against increased radiation exposure, which could raise breast cancer risk, anxiety caused by false positive results and higher costs for the screening programs.

"This trial did not find a significant reduction in breast cancer mortality in women offered annual screening between the ages of 40 and 48 years," said Dr Sue Moss of the Institute of Cancer Research in London.

The results of the research, Dr Moss added, are consistent with the findings of previous studies that analysed the risks and benefits of screening women under 50 years old for breast cancer.

As the leading cause of cancer in women, most cases occur in the over-50s. In Britain, women aged 50-70 are invited for annual screening but in other countries such as the US, screening is advised for younger women.

Moss and her team assessed the impact of screening younger women in a 10-year study. More than 160,000 women in Britain were randomly selected to have annual mammograms from the age of 40 or from 50 years old.

Although cancer deaths in the younger screening group dropped compared to deaths in those screened later, it was not statistically significant, report the team.

23% of women who had regular mammograms from 40 had at least one false positive result, compared to an estimated 12% in the older group.

"Longer follow-up of this trial will provide further information. It is important that all the potential advantages and disadvantages of screening are taken into account when considering any changes in policy," Moss added.

Robert Smith, the director of cancer screening at the American Cancer Society, said the results of the study do not substantively call into question the value of mammography for women in their 40s.

"Current evidence supporting mammograms is even stronger than in the past. In particular, recent evidence has confirmed that mammograms offer substantial benefit for women in their 40s," he said in a statement.

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