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Mammograms and Older Women: Is There an Age to Stop Screening?

Mammograms and Older Women: Is There an Age to Stop Screening?

Tripment, Inc
Tripment Health Team

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is an X-ray image of the breast that is used to detect early signs of breast cancer. Usually, patients get mammograms regularly to detect cancer early. They can also sometimes detect cancer up to three years before it could be felt during a touch breast exam. However, mammograms cannot prove that an irregular area is cancerous. If an area of concern is detected on a mammogram, the doctor may schedule a biopsy to remove a tissue sample for testing.

What are the different types of mammograms?

Usually, the two types are screening mammograms and diagnostic mammograms.

Screening mammograms are performed to check for breast cancer in patients who currently do not show any signs of disease or illness. In addition, these mammograms detect hidden tumors or micro-calcifications that would not be felt in a regular touch breast exam.

Diagnostic mammograms are used to check for breast cancer in patients who show signs of illness. This type of mammogram utilizes more X-rays and tends to take longer than a screening mammogram. These are also used clear images of breast tissue were not obtained during a screening mammogram. Diagnostic mammograms are also used for women who have been previously treated for breast cancer and need interval follow-up exams.

The diagnostic mammogram procedure takes around 10-15 minutes. First, a mammogram technician will position your breasts in between two imaging plates. These plates will apply pressure while taking multiple X-ray images from different positions. Patients who experience discomfort from the pressure can take pain killers either before or after the procedure.

What are the early indicators of breast cancer?

Here is a small list of the most common early signs of breast cancer:

  • Detection of a lump that you have not noticed before, especially under the arm
  • Sudden change in breast size
  • Abnormal nipples
  • Swelling or “dimpling”
  • Breast pain
  • Discharge from nipple
  • Skin discoloration or change on the breast or nipple

How often should you get a mammogram screening?

This depends on your age and your risk of breast cancer. If you have a history of cancer in your family, you are usually regarded as high-risk and your doctor may order screening mammograms for you beginning at an early age. However, even if you do not have a family history of cancer and do not show any signs of the illness, you should still get tested regularly once you turn 40. Risk of developing breast cancer starts declining at the age of 65, but biannual checkups are still usually recommended.

When should you start getting mammograms?

The age to start getting mammograms varies from woman to woman. For women with no history and no symptoms, annual checkups are typically recommended after the age of 40. However, if you are in a high-risk category for developing breast cancer or have noticed any abnormalities with your breasts, you should consult a physician about getting a referral for a screening.

Senior woman having a mammogram scan at the diagnostic imaging center

Does Medicare pay for mammograms after age 70?

Yes, Medicare does cover mammograms for recipients who are 70 years old and above. They cover the total cost of annual screening mammograms and 80% of the cost for diagnostic mammograms. Medicare will continue to cover the cost of screening mammograms after age 75, but it is recommended to consult your doctor to see if screenings are still needed.

When do you stop getting mammograms?

There are no strict firm recommendations by age, as risk factors vary from woman to woman. Some organizations and task forces claim that annual checkups for women in their 60s are not necessary, and biannual checkups would suffice. However, there has been little research on the effectiveness of screening mammograms in women over 60. It is always best to consult with your doctor before making any changes to your annual healthcare routines.

Are there any risks of mammograms?

Mammograms use a minimal amount of radiation — less than a standard chest X-ray. Because the dosage is so small, there are no quantifiable signs that this would cause cancer. While the procedure itself is very low-risk, it is possible for patients to receive false negatives results, where cancer is not detected during the test but does exist in the body, or a false positive, where abnormalities may appear cancerous even though they are not. Overall, there are no significant side effects from mammograms other than slight soreness in the breasts after the exam.

What should you do if the mammogram result is abnormal?

Consult with your doctor as soon as possible if you receive abnormal Mammogram results. Abnormal results do not always indicate that you have breast cancer. Sometimes these results will show cysts, benign lumps, or non-cancerous tumors that need further inspection. In most cases, you will be called back for a follow-up mammogram to compare the results before your provider reaches a diagnosis. If you received a screening mammogram before, a diagnostic mammogram or a breast ultrasound would be used to take more detailed images. If those results come back as normal, you may be told you can return to your former mammogram screening schedule. However, if a lump or abnormality does show cause for concern, your doctor will order a biopsy to examine the breast tissue for cancer. If the biopsy is not cancerous, you may return to your former mammogram screening schedule. If the biopsy does come back cancerous, you and your doctor will work together to develop a treatment plan.

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