Mammograms could spot calcifications in breast arteries a sign of heart disease

Mammograms could be used to spot women at higher risk of developing heart disease, study claims

  • Scientists analyzed both health data and scans from 5,000 Californian women
  • Women with breast arterial calcification were 51% likelier to have heart disease
  • Authors hope scans could identify women at risk of poor cardiovascular health

Breast cancer screening could be used to spot women at higher risk of developing heart disease, a study has suggested.

Mammograms can spot a build-up of calcium within the breasts, which can signal a stiffening of the arteries.

Experts at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research claim its discovery – which shows up as a white area on X-rays – suggests that a woman has ‘poor heart health’.

Analysis of thousands of women showed those with breast arterial calcification, as it is known, are 51 per cent more likely to get heart disease.

Study author Dr Carlos Iribarren reporting the condition following a check-up could help women take early action to slash their risk of heart disease.

He said: ‘Currently, it is not the standard of care for breast arterial calcification visible on mammograms to be reported.

‘Some radiologists do include this information on their mammography reports – but it’s not required.’

Scientists hope information on breast arterial calcification which is easily identifiable through a routine mammogram can be routinely collected to help identify women at risk of heart disease or a stroke

Coronary artery disease (CAD) clogs up the blood vessels and can lead to angina, strokes or heart attacks

Coronary artery disease occurs when the major blood vessels that supply the heart with oxygen and nutrients become damaged.

CAD affects more than 1.6million men and one million women in the UK, and a total of 15million adults in the US.

It is usually due to plaque and inflammation.

When plaque builds up, it narrows the arteries, which decreases blood flow to the heart.

Over time this can cause angina, while a complete blockage can result in a heart attack.

Many people have no symptoms at first but as the plaque builds up they may notice chest pains or shortness of breath when exercising or stressed.

Other causes of CAD include smoking, diabetes and an inactive lifestyle.

It can be prevented by quitting smoking, controlling conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure, staying active, eating well and managing stress.

Drugs can help to lower cholesterol, while aspirin thins the blood to reduce the risk of clots.

In severe cases, stents can be put into the arteries to open them, while coronary bypass surgery creates a graft to bypass the blocked arteries using a vessel from another part of the body.

Source: Mayo Clinic

Currently all women aged 50 to 71 registered with a GP get an invitation every three years for a mammogram. Similar guidelines exist in the US.

However, they are asked to attend more frequent appointments if they have a strong family history of breast cancer or a genetic risk.

The program aims to pick up the cancer at the earliest stages – before lumps can be felt and when a cure is more likely.

Researchers analyzed mammogram results of 5,000 Californian women who had at least one mammogram screening between 2012 and 2015.

The authors then compared the results with the women’s health records six-and-half-years after their scans.

The findings were published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging.

Commenting on the study, Dr Sadiya Khan, a cardiology expert from Northwestern University in Chicago, said identifying breast arterial calcification on scans may help medics encourage women to improve their heart health.

She said: ‘This type of calcification may suggest poor heart health.

‘Clinicians may be able to leverage this opportunity to discuss ways to optimize heart health, such as engaging in routine physical activity, high quality diet and maintaining a healthy weight.’

However, she added it was crucial to remember that the absence of breast arterial calcification did not mean women were at low risk of heart disease.

Women have historically suffered from poorer outcomes for heart attacks than men in the UK.

Research by the BHF published in 2019 found women who suffer a heart attacks are 50 per cent more likely than a man to receive an initial misdiagnosis.

Part of this gender disparity is thought to linked to heart disease being considered a male issue.

Around 800,000 British women have coronary heart disease, a narrowing of arteries from fatty deposits – the leading cause of heart attacks.

Heart disease is leading cause of death for American women, killing almost 300,000 in 2017 alone, accounting for a fifth of all female deaths.

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