Mammograms may rival colonoscopies for the least-favorite screening test among women. A colonoscopy, at least, is usually only once a decade. Mammograms are generally every 1 – 2 years, depending on a woman’s risk factors.
In spite of the discomfort mammograms may cause, many women stick to a regular schedule of getting them—and with good reason. Mammography is the standard for detecting breast cancer. The test has proven to reduce breast cancer deaths, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Read more about the benefits of mammograms.
Women aged 40 – 74 get the most benefit from regular mammograms according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. The Task Force stops short of recommending screening mammograms for women age 75 and older. It doesn’t recommend against them, either. Rather, it concludes that there is not enough evidence to say that the benefits of regular mammograms outweigh the risks for women in this age group.
Possible Risks of Mammograms
Mammograms are not perfect. Some cancers may be missed. Other times, something may look like cancer but turns out not to be. This is called a false-positive result. A false-positive mammogram may lead to more tests, more costs and, most importantly, a lot of anxiety. One 2014 study showed that more than half of 50-year old women will have a false-positive mammogram result in the next 10 years.*
Mammograms may also lead to overdiagnosis. This means that a low-risk cancer or something that may become cancer is detected. These abnormalities may never cause a health problem if left alone. Once found though, standard cancer treatment is recommended. This may lead to unnecessary physical and psychological side effects as well as costs. The same 2014 study cited earlier reports that 1 in 5 breast cancers found on mammograms may be overdiagnosed.*
Medicare Covers Mammograms
Medicare Part B covers a screening mammogram once every 12 months for women age 40 and older. You pay nothing for the screening test as long as your doctor accepts Medicare’s payment as payment in full.
Your annual Wellness Visit is a good time to talk to your doctor about how often you need to have a mammogram. If you are 75 or older, you may want to discuss the benefits and risks of continuing to have regular mammograms.
*Jin J. Breast Cancer Screening: Benefits and Harms. JAMA. 2014;312(23):2585.