Mammograms and Heart Disease

Mammograms are important diagnostic tools when it comes to detecting breast cancer. A new study says they also could help detect potential heart problems as well. The research being presented at the American College of Cardiology’s annual meeting says that visible calcium deposits in the arteries supplying blood to the breasts may signal calcium deposits are building up in the arteries leading to the heart – a very early sign of heart disease.

However, doctors say more research is needed and women should not begin worrying about a heart attack if such deposits show up on their mammogram. “At this point, there is not enough information to determine what women should do,” says Nicole Winkler, M.D., a radiologist with University of Utah Health Care. “We commonly see breast arterial calcifications on mammogram and not all women with these calcifications have heart disease. We have to further evaluate who should pursue further tests. Until we have this figured out, we should not be unnecessarily worrying all women with these calcifications on their mammogram.”

John Ryan, M.D., a cardiologist with University of Utah Health Care echoes these concerns. “It’s a great thing that this study is bringing attention to the risk of heart disease in women,” he says. “But women (and men) need to be living heart healthy lifestyles no matter what appears in their mammograms.”

Once more research is done and protocols are established Winkler says this could change how mammograms are interpreted. “If further research shows that a certain amount of arterial calcification indicates a woman will have a higher risk of coronary artery disease then we may be able to help flag these otherwise healthy, asymptomatic women for further testing to catch heart disease earlier and prevent a heart attack,” she says.

“Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, and if we can use mammograms as a dual-purpose test then we may be able to save lives beyond early detection of breast cancer,” says Winkler. “This recent study will certainly fuel the fire for future research on this subject.”

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