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Mammograms should start from age 50 for most women, US task force says

But some doctor groups urge earlier screenings

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

The debate over breast cancer screenings isn't over.

On Monday, a goverment-led panel of experts issued its final recommendations on breast cancer screenings. Those recommendations — that most women should start mammograms at age 50 — differ from those issued by the American Cancer Society in October. Although both state that, for most women, 40 is too early to get regular mammograms, the ACS has said that women should get yearly mammograms starting at age 45. In addition, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends screenings for women age 40 and above.

The government's guidelines are important because insurers and various government programs often follow the panel's lead when they decide what types of preventative screenings to cover. Under the new guidelines, issued by the US Preventative Services Task Force, women between the ages of 50 and 74 should get routine mammograms every two years, report Reuters. The guidelines also suggest that screenings for women between the ages of 40 and 50 should be offered to select patients, depending on their individual risk factors. The goal of these recommendations is to minimize the risk of false positives — which can lead to painful procedures and even complications — while also making sure that the people who are most at risk reap the benefits.

The new guidelines are controversial, even within the US government. Last month, Congress took the side of advocacy groups and doctor organizations that believe in earlier cancer screenings. Lawmakers directed private insurers to overlook the task force's latest stance on screenings, which was first put forth in 2009. Instead, they were told to rely on the panel's 2002 recommendations; this means that insurers will continue to cover annual mammograms at age 40 through 2017.

The idea that the risk of false positives might outweigh the benefits of early cancer screenings isn't new. In fact, it's becoming a trend. Back in April, the American College of Physicians changed its cervical cancer screening guidelines, stating that women under the age of 21 shouldn't get screened at all. And in May, the American Urological Association decided that men under 54 shouldn't get routine testing for prostate cancer. In each of these instances, experts cited the risk of people getting unnecessary and risky procedures as a reason to forgo early screenings.