Widespread conventional wisdom—pushed by breast cancer screening centers across the country—dictates that people with breasts get an annual mammogram starting at age 40. But the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which is responsible for making federal recommendations for the screenings, continues to recommend that people only seek mammograms after the age of 50, and only get them every two years.
If this baffling discrepancy sounds familiar it’s because it has been the subject of debate for more than a decade now, and, frustratingly, it seems no closer to being resolved. A recent study reported on by the New York Times found that hundreds of breast cancer screenings sites in the U.S. encouraged women 40 and over to get yearly mammograms, sparking outrage among researchers and public health experts who say it’s irresponsible.
“I don’t think breast cancer centers that have clear financial benefits from increasing mammography should be the ones that are giving out patient advice, particularly when it conflicts with the patient’s primary care provider’s advice and the task force’s advice,” Rita F. Redberg, the editor-in-chief of JAMA Internal Medicine, the journal in which the study was published, wrote in an editorial alongside two other doctors.
But the disagreement is not merely between screening centers and medical institutions; there is disagreement among medical institutions themselves. Some maintain that 40 is the best age to start annual mammograms—the college of radiology and the American Society of Breast Surgeons, for example—while others argue that these early screenings can do more harm than good since women in their 40s are much more likely to get results that show false positives.
And others still advise that women get regular mammograms beginning around 40, but with certain stipulations: According to the Times, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that most women start getting the screenings at 40, but only “every one or two years.”
All of this is very confusing! And for the layperson, it can be difficult to accept the idea that more screenings from an earlier age isn’t automatically better: The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force found that getting mammograms every other year reduced the frequency of false positive and had no effect on the life-saving benefits of the tests, the Times reports.
Breast cancer is a terrifying threat that looms over people with breasts; the apparent lack of a true consensus about when and how often to screen for it only makes it scarier.