Breast cancer is rare in women under 50. At present, mammograms have not been shown to be as effective at detecting breast cancer in pre-menopausal women (women who have not had their menopause). The average age of the menopause in the UK is 50. After the menopause, the glandular tissue in the breast decreases and the breast tissue is increasingly made up of only fat. Fat shows up more clearly on the mammogram and makes interpretation of the x-ray more reliable.
Breast cancer is far more common in post-menopausal women and the risk of developing breast cancer increases as women get older.
The NHS Breast Screening Programme is gradually extending the lower age range for screening women in England to 47. This means that all women in England registered with a GP will receive their first screening appointment before their 50th birthday. New ways of doing mammograms using digital images are also being introduced because they are more reliable at detecting breast cancers in younger women.
For the time being, the other countries in the UK are continuing to screen women between the ages of 50 and 70. If you are under the screening age for the country you live in, and are concerned about a specific breast problem, you can ask your GP to refer you to a hospital breast clinic. This is not part of the NHS Breast Screening Programme; however, the same tests are used in both breast screening clinics and hospital breast clinics.
Why are women only screened every three years?
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Large research studies have shown that increasing the frequency of screening mammograms doesn’t help to save lives from breast cancer. Having screening more regularly than every three years may increase anxiety for the women being screened. It will also involve more x-rays and greater exposure to radiation.