The case-control study is one of the first to look at the impact of the NHS National Screening Programme since it was introduced in 1988.
The authors said there was a need to demonstrate that such programmes were delivering the benefits suggested by clinical trials.
Researchers studied data on 852 women in East Anglia, comparing screening history between 284 women who had died from breast cancer with 568 matched controls.
The mean number of screens in the case group was 1.39 compared with 1.70 among the controls. They said that being screened was associated with a 48% reduction in relative risk of dying from breast cancer.
Lead researcher Stephen Duffy, Cancer Research UK professor of cancer screening, said: ‘This is the strongest evidence yet that programmes like this save lives.
‘We hope to collect data from other regions, allowing us to compare programmes, bringing the best practices to areas that aren’t performing as well.’
Jean Slocombe, senior cancer information nurse at Cancer Research UK, added: ‘It’s important that women take up invitations to be screened.
‘Women should still make sure they know how their breasts look and feel at different times of the month and not delay in reporting changes to their doctor – most breast cancers are still found by women themselves.’
The government plans to extend the programme in England so that by 2012 every woman will have been invited for screening before they reach the age of 50.
British Journal of Cancer (2008) 98: 206–209