Estrogen receptor (ER) status is considered as an important prognostic factor as well as a predictive factor for endocrine responsiveness in breast cancer. We analyzed the distribution of ER status across age and estimated variations in the prognostic impact of ER status related to patients' age and time since diagnosis. Overall, 26,944 patients with primary breast cancer diagnosed from 1989 to 2004 were included. The proportion of ER positive tumors increased over age from 51 to 82%. In multivariate analysis of overall survival, ER positive status was found to be a significantly positive prognostic factor over all age groups. This effect was limited to the first 5 years after diagnosis, RR: 2.08 (95% CI: 1.95–2.22, p < 0.0001). Overall survival during the following 5 years was slightly superior for women with ER negative tumors, RR of death: 0.89 (95% CI: 0.79–1.00, p = 0.049). Results were unchanged in patients who did not receive adjuvant systemic therapy (n = 6,272). Thus, positive ER status does not confer a negative impact on survival in young women as has been previously reported. The inferior prognosis for ER negative patients during the first 5 years after diagnosis changes into a slightly superior residual prognosis compared to ER positive patients independent of use of adjuvant systemic therapy. This may have an impact on future designing of guidelines for adjuvant endocrine therapy beyond 5 years. © 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.