The mammogram that most women older than 40 undergo each year may be able to detect heart disease along with breast problems.
That's because women with calcium deposits in the arteries of their breasts, which show up in the cancer screenings, have an increased risk of the same kinds of deposits in their coronary arteries, researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., have found. In the heart, these deposits are signs of atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque that can break off and cause a heart attack or stroke.
"The fact that so many women die each year unaware of their heart ailments illustrates the need for better detection of coronary heart disease," Dr. Dana Whaley, a study coauthor and Mayo Clinic radiologist, said in a statement. Because most women undergo routine breast cancer screenings, mammograms can help pick up coronary artery disease in women who may have no symptoms. And, she added, "mammograms are already paid for in terms of time and health-care dollars."
The researchers looked at mammograms from 1,880 women with an average age of 65, who had undergone coronary imaging called angiography as well as mammography within a one-year period between 1991 and 2001. The researchers found that women with calcifications in their breast arteries had a 20% higher risk for coronary artery disease compared with other women of the same age.
The lead investigator, Dr. Kirk Doerger, recommended that radiologists interpreting mammograms also note the amount of calcification. The results were presented last week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.