Mammograms that use digital imaging to help doctors find cancer are better than standard X-rays for young women and those with dense breasts, but others can skip the extra cost and get the old-fashioned kind, a landmark study concludes.
It involved more than 40,000 women and was the largest ever done to compare mammography screening techniques.
For most women who get mammograms - those past menopause with fatty breasts - "there's no reason to seek digital ... film is just as good," said the lead researcher, Dr. Etta Pisano, chief of breast imaging at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
However, doctors still expect digital mammograms to become more common because of their many advantages, including that they can be stored on a computer and sent electronically whenever a woman moves or a new doctor needs to see them.
"Everything is going filmless. If there's no disadvantage to digital mammography, I would presume over time it will replace film screening," said Dr. Kathy Brandt, chief of breast imaging at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who had no role in the study.
The study involved 42,760 women in the United States and Canada and was done by the American College of Radiology Imaging Network. It was funded by the National Cancer Institute.
Results were reported Friday at a medical meeting and released online by the New England Journal of Medicine, which will publish them Oct. 27.
Mammograms cut the risk of dying of breast cancer by up to 35 percent among women 50 and older, but only by up to 20 percent among younger women.
Digital mammograms produce images on a computer screen, where they can be enhanced or magnified to reveal signs of cancer. Doctors have hoped that this would improve mammography's usefulness for younger women.