Mammograms reduce risk of cancer death, study finds

But research does little to settle scientific debate


WASHINGTON - A new analysis of mammography, the latest in a series to address the question of whether breast cancer screening saves lives, has found that the tests reduce the risk of dying from the disease by one-fifth.

The study, being released today by a team of Swedish researchers, concluded that the benefits of breast cancer screening were greatest for women older than 55. Among younger women, the benefits were not statistically significant, the study found.

The research is likely to do little to settle the debate among scientists and statisticians over the value of mammograms. But proponents of mammography said the study bolsters their case, adding that the overall findings lend credence to the federal government's recent recommendation that women over 40 have the tests every one to two years.

"It adds yet more evidence to suggest that mammography screening reduces mortality," said Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University who helped draft the government's recommendations. "It goes onto a pile of existing studies showing that mammography is effective."

Routine mammograms have been a part of the lives of American women for decades, but debate over their usefulness has been going on for years. At issue is whether the benefits of detecting tumors early, when they are small and can be easily removed, outweigh the risks, which include false positive test results and unnecessary surgery to remove tumors that might not be dangerous.

The Swedish study is an updated analysis of four large Swedish clinical trials that have been at the center of that debate. In October, scientists in Denmark announced that they had found serious flaws in studies, including the Swedish trials, that have been widely cited as proof of the benefits of mammography.

The new review in the journal Lancet is the Swedish rebuttal. Led by Dr. Lennarth Nystrom of Umea University in Sweden, the scientists extended their follow-up of 247,000 women involved in the four Swedish studies, and re-examined an earlier analysis in light of the Danish critique.

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