Breast screening women in their forties saves lives

August 12, 2020

Breast screening women aged 40-49 reduces breast cancer mortality, with minimal increased overdiagnosis, according to a study led by Queen Mary University of London that looked at data from 160,000 women.

The UK, along with many other countries, has a breast cancer screening programme offering mammography to women aged 50-70 years every 3 years. However, uncertainty currently exists over whether to start screening at a younger age, including whether it might lead to overdiagnosis of breast cancer.

Between 1990 and 1997, the UK Breast Screening Age Trial randomised more than 160,000 UK women aged 39-41 to receive either annual mammography, or the usual NHS breast screening which commences at age 50. The primary outcome was mortality from breast cancers diagnosed prior to first NHS breast screen.

In a new analysis, published in The Lancet Oncology which presents the 23-year follow-up results of the trial, it was found that screening women aged 40-49 led to a substantial and significant 25 per cent reduction in breast cancer mortality in the first ten years. The total years of life saved from breast cancer in the intervention group was estimated as 620, corresponding to 11.5 years saved per 1,000 women invited to earlier screening.

The results also suggest at worst modest overdiagnosis in this age group, and that any overdiagnosed cancers would otherwise be diagnosed at NHS screening from 50 years of age. Therefore, screening in the age group of 40-49 years does not appear to add to overdiagnosed cases from screening at age 50 years and older.

Lead researcher Professor Stephen Duffy from Queen Mary University of London said: "This is a very long term follow-up of a study which confirms that screening in women under 50 can save lives. The benefit is seen mostly in the first ten years, but the reduction in mortality persists in the long term at about one life saved per thousand women screened.

"We now screen more thoroughly and with better equipment than in the 1990's when most of the screening in this trial took place, so the benefits may be greater than we've seen in this study."

The researchers say that more research is needed to clarify whether progress in early detection technology and treatment of breast cancer might modify the screening-related reduction in mortality in the 40-49 age group. They also did not consider the cost-effectiveness of lowering the screening age.
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The study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment programme, and included researchers from King's College London, University of Nottingham, University of Dundee and Tel Aviv University.

For more information, please contact:

Joel Winston
Communications Manager (School of Medicine and Dentistry)
Queen Mary University of London
j.winston@qmul.ac.uk
Tel: +44 (0)7968 267 064

Notes to the editor

Research paper: 'Effect of mammographic screening from the age of 40 years on breast cancer mortality (UK Age Trial): final results of a randomised, controlled trial'. Stephen W Duffy, Daniel Vulkan, Howard Cuckle, Dharmishta Parmar, Shama Sheikh, Robert A Smith, Andrew Evans, Oleg Blyuss, Louise Johns, Ian O Ellis, Jonathan Myles, Peter D Sasieni, Sue M Moss. The Lancet Oncology 2020.

Available here after the embargo lifts: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(20)30398-3/fulltext

About Queen Mary University of London

At Queen Mary University of London, we believe that a diversity of ideas helps us achieve the previously unthinkable.

In 1785, Sir William Blizard established England's first medical school, The London Hospital Medical College, to improve the health of east London's inhabitants. Together with St Bartholomew's Medical College, founded by John Abernethy in 1843 to help those living in the City of London, these two historic institutions are the bedrock of Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Today, Barts and The London continues to uphold this commitment to pioneering medical education and research. Being firmly embedded within our east London community, and with an approach that is driven by the specific health needs of our diverse population, is what makes Barts and The London truly distinctive.

Our local community offer to us a window to the world, ensuring that our ground-breaking research in cancer, cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases, and population health not only dramatically improves the outcomes for patients in London, but also has a far-reaching global impact.

This is just one of the many ways in which Queen Mary is continuing to push the boundaries of teaching, research and clinical practice, and helping us to achieve the previously unthinkable.

About the National Institute for Health Research

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation's largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR supports applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.

Queen Mary University of London

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