USPSTF’s Mammography Letdown?

Last year’s relief that the USPSTF would lower its recommended starting age for breast screening to 40 gave way to frustration this week that the group did not go farther in its final decision on mammography recommendations. 

In a series of papers in JAMA journals this week, the USPSTF tackled a range of breast screening issues, from the age at which screening should start to whether modalities like ultrasound and MRI should be used to supplement conventional mammography.

That was the good news. The bad news is that breast screening advocates mostly got shut out on a variety of other issues, with the USPSTF … 

  • Advising that breast screening be conducted biennially (every two years), rather than annually as most women’s imaging advocates would prefer
  • Declining to raise the recommended upper limit for screening from 74 to 79
  • Declining to recommend supplemental screening with MRI or ultrasound for women with dense breast tissue, even as women express frustration with the lack of reimbursement for these exams

On the positive side, the USPSTF finally weighed in on DBT, stating that the 3D mammography technology is equivalent to digital mammography for breast screening. 

  • But in another disappointment, the group said it couldn’t find any studies stating that DBT was better than 2D digital mammography. 

Given the fierce battles that have been fought over screening guidelines in the last 15 years, what made the USPSTF change its mind on mammography’s starting age? 

  • One big factor is the 2% annual rise in breast cancer incidence in women in their 40s from 2015 to 2019; the higher mortality rates among Black women was another issue (see story below in The Wire).

The Takeaway

The USPSTF’s move to lower its recommended starting age for screening mammography is a welcome – if overdue – change for women, who for 15 years have borne the brunt of the group’s conservative approach to guideline formation. The question remains, is the USPSTF making the same mistake all over again when it comes to supplemental imaging and annual screening? And how long will women have to wait this time until it sees the light?

A New Day for Breast Screening

In a breathtaking about-face, the USPSTF said it would reverse 14 years of guidance in breast screening and lower its recommended starting age for routine mammography to 40.

In a proposed guidance, USPSTF said it would recommend screening for women every other year starting at age 40 and continuing through 74. The task force called for research into additional screening with breast ultrasound or MRI for women with dense breasts, and on screening in women older than 75.

The move will reverse a policy USPSTF put in place in 2009, when it withdrew its recommendation that all women start screening at 40, instead advising women in their 40s to consult with their physicians about starting screening. Routine mammography was advised starting at age 50. The move drew widespread condemnation from women’s health advocates, but the USPSTF stuck to the policy even through a 2016 revision.

The task force remained steadfast even as studies showed that the 2009 policy change led to confusion and lower breast screening attendance. The change also gave fuel to anti-mammography extremists who questioned whether any breast screening was a good idea.

That all changes now. In its announcement of the 2023 guidance, USPSTF said it based the new policy on its review of the 2016 update. No new RCTs on breast screening have been conducted for decades (it’s considered unethical to deny screening to women in a control group), so the task force commissioned collaborative modeling studies from CISNET.

USPSTF said the following findings factored into its decision to change the guidance: 

  • Biennial screening from 40-74 would avert 1.3 additional breast cancer deaths per 1,000 women screened compared to biennial screening of women 50-74.
  • The benefits of screening at 40 would be even greater for Black women, at 1.8 deaths averted. 
  • The incidence rate of invasive breast cancer for women 40-49 has increased 2.0% annually from 2015-2019, a higher rate than in previous years. 
  • Biennial screening results in greater incremental life-years gained and mortality reduction per mammogram and better balance of benefits to harms compared to annual screening.

The Takeaway 

As with the FDA’s recent decision to require density reporting nationwide, the USPSTF’s proposal to move the starting age for mammography screening to 40 was long overdue. The question now is how long it will take to repair 14 years of lost momentum and eliminate confusion about breast screening.

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