Mammograms can help detect breast cancer. Early detection of cancer can save lives and improve outcomes. Healthcare professionals typically provide mammograms for people aged 40 and over.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) suggests that people aged 40–49 years discuss when to start having mammograms with a doctor. It also recommends that people aged 50–74 years have a mammogram every 2 years.

This article describes expert guidelines for mammograms and explores how much they cost and where to have one.

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There is no single guideline about when to have a mammogram in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a guide that compares the mammogram guidelines of seven expert agencies and organizations.

A person with an average risk of breast cancer should contact a doctor to discuss the benefits and risks associated with this screening and determine the right mammogram schedule for them.

Guidelines for those aged 40–49

Below, learn what various health authorities recommend for people with an average risk of breast cancer:

Organization or agencyGuideline
USPSTFA person may decide to begin screening every 2 years if the benefits outweigh the risks.
American Cancer Society (ACS)People aged 40–44 should have the option of yearly screening, and people aged 45–49 should have yearly screening.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)A person can have a mammogram every 2 years after making this decision with a doctor.
International Agency for Research on CancerThere is limited information to confirm the need for yearly screening of people under 50.
American College for RadiologyA person should have a mammogram once a year.
American College of PhysiciansMake the decision with a doctor, as the risks outweigh the benefits in this age group.
American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP)Weigh the pros and cons of getting a mammogram before age 50.

Guidelines for those aged 50–75

The same agencies are similarly divided:

Organization or agencyGuideline
USPSTFScreen every 2 years.
ACSScreen annually for those aged 50–54, and screen annually or once every other year for those aged 55–75.
ACOGA healthcare professional should decide whether mammograms are necessary every year or every other year.
International Agency for Research on CancerThe benefits of screening outweigh the potential harm.
American College of RadiologyScreen once a year.
American College of PhysiciansScreen once every 2 years.
AAFPScreen once every 2 years.

According to the ACS, a person should have the option of a mammogram every year starting at the age of 40. They also recommend screening every year for people aged 45–54.

It is important to discuss the risk factors for cancer and the benefits and risks of having a mammogram with a doctor. This conversation can help determine the best screening schedule for each person.

There is no set age at which this screening should stop. A doctor can explain when mammograms are no longer necessary for each person, depending on their risk factors.

Below are the current suggestions about when to stop having mammograms, beginning at age 75, for a person with average risk:

Organization or agencyGuideline
ACSScreening should continue, providing that the person’s overall health is good and they are expected to live for at least another 10 years.
ACOGDeciding when to stop screening should be based on a discussion about overall health and life expectancy.
American College of RadiologyThe decision should be based on the person’s overall health, not their age.
American College of PhysiciansMammograms should stop for people with a life expectancy of 10 years or less.

Meanwhile, the USPSTF and the AAFP say that there is insufficient evidence to assess the benefits and risks of mammograms for people aged over 75.

Risk factors for breast cancer can affect when a person should start getting mammograms. For this reason, a person should speak with a doctor about their risk and together develop a screening schedule.

According to the CDC, some breast cancer risk factors to consider include:

  • an age of over 50
  • genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2
  • a personal history of breast cancer
  • a family history of breast cancer
  • having dense breast tissue
  • personal factors, such as menstruating before age 12 and starting menopause after age 55
  • previous radiation treatment
  • a history of taking diethylstilbestrol, sometimes called DES, a medication that some pregnant people took between 1940 and 1971

Learn more about genes that cause breast cancer here.

Mammograms can help detect breast cancer sooner, which can lead to better outcomes and reduce the need for invasive treatments, such as surgery.

This screening may reduce the risk of dying from cancer by at least 25–30%, reports.

A person and their doctor should consider the risks associated with mammograms.

As the National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports, these risks include:

  • False positives: A screening falsely indicating cancer can cause anxiety and stress and lead to unnecessary further testing.
  • False negatives: A screening failing to detect cancer may account for about 20% of all breast cancer cases.
  • Overdiagnosis and treatment: This might involve the doctor misidentifying a benign tumor or another growth as cancer and treating it aggressively.
Do mammograms expose people to unsafe levels of radiation?

Mammograms are safe. Although they use radiation, it is only a very small amount.

People are exposed to background radiation throughout their daily lives. According to Johns Hopkins, the amount from a mammogram is equal to approximately 2 months of background radiation, and this falls within medical guidelines.

Usually, the benefits of a mammogram outweigh the possible harm from exposure to radiation.

A person should discuss their concerns with a healthcare professional and let the doctor or X-ray technologist know beforehand if they might be pregnant.

Learn more about mammograms and cancer risk here.

It may be best to ask a primary care physician for local recommendations.

More generally, the NCI notes that a person can get a high-quality mammogram at:

  • hospital radiology departments
  • breast clinics
  • doctors’ offices
  • mobile screening vans
  • private radiology offices

While a person should speak with a doctor before scheduling a mammogram, a doctor’s permission is not necessary — a person can schedule one without a prescription or referral.

The costs of a mammogram can depend on the facility and the person’s insurance coverage.

However, insurance plans that the Affordable Care Act governs are required to cover the cost of mammograms every 1–2 years for anyone over 40, without requiring copayments, deductibles, or coinsurance.

Many states also require public employee health plans to cover mammogram costs.

Medicare covers annual screening for people who are 40 or over and eligible for a Medicare plan.

For people without insurance

People without health insurance can access lower-cost mammograms through several programs.

In many states, Medicaid covers mammogram costs.

In addition, the CDC has created the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. This provides breast cancer and cervical cancer screening for people with low incomes and those who are underinsured or uninsured.

A person can learn how to access these services on the CDC’s website here or call 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636).

For more information about free or reduced-cost screening, a person can contact the NCI at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

Around the age of 40, it is a good idea to discuss the potential benefit of a mammogram with a doctor. Depending on the person’s risk of breast cancer, the doctor may recommend waiting longer before having a mammogram.

However, a person does not need a doctor’s permission to get a mammogram, starting at the age of 40. A person can schedule the appointment on their own. Still, the NCI recommends discussing the risks and benefits with a doctor beforehand.

Mammograms detect breast cancer early, leading to better health outcomes. There is no single recommendation about when to start having mammograms in the U.S.

Most guidelines recommend that a person should have the option starting at the age of 40. People with a higher risk of breast cancer may need more regular screening.

While a person does not need a doctor’s permission to schedule a mammogram, it is a good idea to discuss the benefits and risks with a healthcare professional, who can also recommend a screening schedule and when to stop having mammograms.