New Study: Breast Cancer Screening Is Useless
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
Is it time to accept that plenty of cancer-screening in the developed world is motivated by psychological needs, rather than fact? Screening addresses our fears of statistically unlikely horrors, which scare us much more than the car accidents and cheeseburgers that are more likely to kill us. And it gives us a feeling of control. But the impact of screening on cancer death rates is another matter. More evidence of this was published yesterday in the British Journal of Medicine, in a study of the relationship of mammograms and death rates in Denmark (found via the invaluable Health News Review blog).
Copenhagen's rates of death by breast cancer fell 25 percent between 1991 and 2005, when mammography screening was introduced for all women aged 50 to 69. By analyzing data on deaths nationwide, the study's authors were able to compare that rate with other parts of Denmark, where screening wasn't offered. Results: Between 1997 and 2006, breast cancer deaths in those mammogrammed Copenhagen women declined by 1 percent per year. However, in parts of Denmark with no screening programs, breast cancer deaths in the same period declined by 2 percent per year. Conclusion: Copenhagen's program had no effect whatsoever on breast cancer death rates. Those probably declined, the authors say, because of decreases in risk factors like smoking and improvements in treatment.
Then too, earlier this month Richard J. Ablin denounced widespread testing for Prostate Specific Antigen, an enzyme made in the prostate. Since 1994, millions of men have taken the screen in the belief that elevated P.S.A. levels could diagnose prostate cancer. These screens, Ablin wrote, were a "hugely expensive public health disaster," and he certainly had the authority to speak out: He discovered P.S.A. As a diagnostic tool, he argues, the test is "hardly more effective than a coin toss."
Scientists have developed new ways of understanding how the biological forces of death drive important life processes.
- Researchers have found new ways on how decomposing plants and animals contribute to the life cycle.
- After a freak mass herd death of 300 reindeer, scientists were able to study a wide range of the decomposition processes.
- Promoting the necrobiome research will open up new areas of inquiry and even commerce.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
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