Breast cancer is extremely rare in women in their teens and uncommon in women under 35. After this age the risk begins to gradually increase, but doesn't rise dramatically until after the menopause. Mammograms are also less effective in pre-menopausal women probably because the density of the breast tissue and the fat content is higher. This makes it more difficult for a mammogram which uses x-ray technology to detect any problems.
Because of this breast screening is not offered to younger women and regular self examination or examination as part of a regular medical examination is recommended instead. However, it is important for women of all ages to self-examine regularly to detect any possible breast lumps as soon as possible.
Recently however there has been some promise in digital mammography. Whereas conventional film mammography captures images of breast tissue on x-ray film, digital mammography uses computer imaging. This has been shown to be better for screening younger women and women with denser breasts, and is equally effective as film mammography in older women. This is being implemented across the NHS Breast Screening Programme and as of July 2011, 85% of breast screening units have at least one digital mammography machine.
Despite this new technology there are no plans to lower the screening age further than 47 . This is because the risk of cancer is low in these women and there is also little evidence to show that regular mammograms for most women under the age of 47 reduce deaths from breast cancer.
Screening Tests for High Risk Patients
Some women, including younger women, may be at high risk of developing breast cancer due to their family history or certain genetic mutations. They may also be at more risk if they have had radiotherapy to their chest area at a young age. These women are usually screened with an MRI scan +/- a mammogram and screening may begin as early as age 25 depending on the condition. These women may also be screened more regularly such as annually. However, the need for screening and the frequency of screening is determined by a medical professional as opposed to the national screening programme.