Mammograms before 50? New study says ‘yes’

If you’re a woman under 50 wondering whether you should get a mammogram, you are basically on your own. Few other health issues have been so furiously confused by conflicting studies than whether mammograms save lives of women under 50.

In 2009, a government working group issued new guidelines for women to not get regular mammograms until age 50. To do so early, the panel said, risks unnecessarily biopsies.

Two years ago, some researchers presented a study saying women should get regular mammograms in their 40s.

The government says “don’t do it.” Insurance companies and many doctors say “don’t do it.” The American Cancer Society still says “do it.”

Now, perhaps, a Harvard study of 600 women who died of breast cancer could break the debate.

Half of those who died were under age 50, the authors said. Seventy-one percent of the deaths were women who were never screened for breast cancer.

The lead researcher says breast cancer in younger women makes screening more important because it can be harder to treat.

“The biological nature of breast cancer in young women is more aggressive, while breast cancer in older women tends to be more indolent. This suggests that less frequent screening in older women, but more frequent screening in younger women, may be more biologically based, practical, and cost effective,” study author Dr. Blake Cady, professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said in a press release.

Co-author Dr. Daniel Kopans, of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, said the suggestion that early detection efforts lead to false positives and unnecessary biopsies is inaccurate and was not based on examination of any women.

As definitive as that sounds, it still may not end the debate.

It’s worth noting that the study was published in the American Cancer Society’s research journal — and the American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms for women age 40 and older.

Related: The Dreaded Mammogram Callback (Tough Cookie Mommy blog).