Mammography helps women by detecting early signs of breast cancer, but this helpful tool may also offer women an unexpected bonus – the ability to check heart health, according to results gleaned from new research. It appears that radiologists scouring your mammograms for evidence of breast cancer may also be able to spot calcification that has collected in the arteries supplying blood to the breasts, according to this emerging research.
Calcium Deposits in Breast Arteries May Also Be in Heart Arteries
Women who have an excessive buildup of calcium deposits in their breast arteries usually have similar deposits located in the arteries leading to their hearts. Considered to be an early indicator of heart disease, these deposits are an extremely accurate indicator that additional testing may be necessary for women undergoing a mammogram. Calcium deposits are also a major risk factor for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. If follow-up studies confirm these results, mammograms could be a "twofer" deal covering breast cancer and heart disease.
Zero Extra Costs or Radiation Levels Benefit Patients
Without incurring additional cost or extra radiation levels, calcification in vessels can be detected along with any signs of breast cancer. This is a revolutionary change in the way to assess these health risks and can lead to exciting changes in the way radiologists read mammography. Results of these studies were presented in 2016 at the annual American College of Cardiology's annual meeting and are still considered to be preliminary, but more than promising.
Calcium Deposits Show Up Clearly in Mammograms
Nearly 300 women who underwent digital mammography took part in this study. These women also had separate, and unrelated CT scans within one year of their breast cancer screenings. Researchers reviewed their mammograms for signs of calcium deposits in breast arteries. Nearly 42 percent of the women in this study had calcium deposits in their arteries. Calcium deposits showed up exceptionally well on the mammograms. Researchers compared those results with the women's CT scans to determine if their heart arteries also showed signs of calcification.
Younger and Middle-Aged Women Benefit from These Findings
Younger and middle-aged women at risk of heart disease could find this "add-on" service to be particularly beneficial. Nearly half of women younger than 60 with heart artery calcification also had breast artery calcification. While younger women don't appreciate risk levels for heart disease as much as they should, this screening could inspire women to take advantage of preventative opportunities while they're still young.
Calcification Detection Can Help Bridge Gaps in Healthcare
This is also a significant opportunity to develop formative partnerships between specialists in women's health and cardiologists. Radiologists could share data from mammograms with other health care providers to protect their patient's health. Since mammography reports are extremely structured in many states, the ability to push this sort of information into patient reports might be limited, but these findings may be the catalyst for changing this and raising more opportunities for prevention.
Clearly, this research is very promising for women's health. Heart disease and breast cancer are significant health risks for women, and any advantage in detecting these conditions as early as possible should be embraced. It will take time for this to become the standard in care. In the meantime, if you have additional questions about obtaining a mammogram or screening for risks of heart disease, you should contact your physician. Hopefully, this potentially life-saving development will be routine for future mammograms as soon as possible.
Visit the Women’s Imaging Center or one of our outpatient centers for your mammogram.