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Screening women as young as 40 for breast cancer could reduce mortality by 10 to 11 per cent, according to preliminary results from a major trial.
Initial estimates from the UK Age trial, the first to specifically evaluate the impact of mammography in women aged from 40 to 50, suggest screening might be effective at detecting cancers earlier.
The trial has also eased fears that younger women would be reluctant to attend, finding uptake of 68 to 70 per cent.
Researchers invited 53,000 women for annual mammography and forecast the impact on mortality after analysing results on tumour size, grade and node status in screened women and controls.
Dr Sue Moss, associate director of the cancer screening evaluation unit at the Institute of Cancer Research, said: 'Results so far suggest that a reduction in breast cancer mortality in the trial is likely to be observed.
'When all women in the control arm have been invited for their first screen at ages 50 to 52 we should be in a
position to make a more accurate prediction of the long-term effect on mortality.'
The research, published in two separate papers in this week's British Journal of Cancer, found detection of invasive breast cancers was 8 per cent higher in the screening group than in controls. Sensitivity of screening was 74 per cent for the first screen and 54 per cent at subsequent screens.
Researchers opted for annual screening partly because of concerns over sensitivity in pre-menopausal women.
Julietta Patnick, director of the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes, said: 'The findings of the Age Trial will provide an important contribution to our understanding of the effect of screening women from age 40. We welcome these interim results though it's not clear how many lives would be saved.'
Dr Pawen Randev, a locum GP in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, and a cancer lead in the area, said the results were encouraging but there were still questions to be answered.
'Part of me feels we still have to get the current screening programme rates up as in London we only have an uptake of 60 per cent,' he said.
New Department of Health figures show 74.9 per cent of women aged 53-64 in England had been screened at least once in the previous three years, a slight drop of 0.4 per cent from the previous year.
By Emma Wilkinson