The relationship of mammographic density and age: implications for breast cancer screening

AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2012 Mar;198(3):W292-5. doi: 10.2214/AJR.10.6049.


Objective: Breast density is increasingly recognized as an independent risk factor for the development of breast cancer, because it has been shown to be associated with a four- to sixfold increase in a woman's risk of malignant breast disease. Increased breast density as identified on mammography is also known to decrease the diagnostic sensitivity of the examination, which is of great concern to women at increased risk for breast cancer. Dense tissue has generally been associated with younger age and premenopausal status, with the assumption that breast density gradually decreases after menopause. However, the actual proportion of older women with dense breasts is unknown. The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between age and breast density, particularly focusing on postmenopausal women.

Materials and methods: All screening mammograms completed at the New York University Langone Medical Center in 2008 were retrospectively reviewed. Analysis of variance and descriptive analyses were used to evaluate the relationship between patient age and breast density.

Results: A total of 7007 screening mammograms were performed. The median age of our cohort was 57 years. Within each subgroup categorized by decade of age, there was a normal distribution among the categories of breast density. There was a significant inverse relationship between age and breast density (p < 0.001). Seventy-four percent of patients between 40 and 49 years old had dense breasts. This percentage decreased to 57% of women in their 50s. However, 44% of women in their 60s and 36% of women in their 70s had dense breasts as characterized on their screening mammograms.

Conclusion: In general, we found an inverse relationship between patient age and mammographic breast density. However, there were outliers at the extremes of age. A meaningful proportion of young women had predominantly fatty breasts and a subset of older women had extremely dense breasts. Increased density renders mammography a less sensitive tool for early detection. Breast density should be considered when evaluating the potential benefit of extended imaging for breast cancer screening, especially for women at increased risk for the disease.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Breast / pathology*
  • Breast Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mammography*
  • Middle Aged
  • Postmenopause
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Factors