Using 1,973 breast tumours from women aged 40–69 participating in the Swedish two-county trial of mammographic screening for breast cancer, we examined the effect of histological type on prognosis and sojourn time (the duration of the preclinical screen-detectable phase) by age. The hypothesis of dedifferentiation, according to which a cancer of mixed malignancy grade drifts towards grade 3 as the more poorly differentiated part of the tumour grows faster than the well-differentiated part, was also assessed. Ductal carcinoma in situ, invasive ductal carcinoma of grade 1, mucinous carcinoma and tubular carcinoma were all associated with good survival. Ductal carcinoma of grade 3 was associated with poor survival. Ductal carcinoma of grade 2, lobular and medullary carcinoma were associated with intermediate survival. These patterns were much the same in women aged 40–49 as in women aged 50–69. In women aged 40–49, sojourn time was estimated at about 2 years regardless of histological type. For women aged 50–69, there was a marked association of sojourn time with histological type, the shortest sojourn time being observed for lobular (2 years) and medullary (1.2 years) carcinoma, and the longest for ductal carcinoma grade 1 (7.7 years) and tubular carcinoma (7.1 years). There was strong evidence of a potential to dedifferentiation. A mover-stayer mixture of Markov chain models estimated that, in women aged 40–54, 91% of ductal tumours have the potential to dedifferentiate and, in women aged 55–69, 38% of ductal tumours have such a potential. © 1996 Wiley-Liss, Inc.