NEW YORK, March 25 (UPI) -- Calcium in arteries of the breast, visible in mammograms, may help doctors catch heart disease in women much earlier, researchers found in a new study.
Detecting heart disease using routine mammograms was found to be as accurate as generally used risk scores, suggesting doctors could intervene earlier and prevent the disease, according to researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine.
Women over 40 are recommended to have an annual mammogram to screen for breast cancer. Researchers said calcium buildup in breast arteries is visible, making the 37 million mammograms done annually in the United States useful beyond checking for cancer.
"This information is available on every mammogram, with no additional cost or radiation exposure, and our research suggests breast arterial calcification is as good as the standard risk factor-based estimate for predicting risk," Dr. Harvey Hecht, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine, said in a press release. "Using this information would allow at-risk women to be referred for standard CAC scoring and to be able to start focusing on prevention -- perhaps even taking a statin when it can make the most difference."
For the study, published in the journal Cardiovascular Imaging, the researchers recruited 292 women who had mammograms and computed tomography scans, assessing the calcification of breast and coronary arteries on a scale of 0 to 12. These scores were compared to each other and other standard measures of risk for heart disease, including the Framingham Risk Score and 2013 Cholesterol Guidelines Polled Cohort Equations.
Breast arterial calcification indicated coronary arterial calcification with 70 percent accuracy, while 63 percent of women with coronary arterial calcification also had breast arterial calcification.
Overall, 42.5 percent of the women had breast arterial calcification, and of these they were more likely to be older, have high blood pressure and kidney disease, and less likely to smoke.
While the researchers say more studies are needed to understand and validate the link between the two unrelated types of atherosclerosis, the potential to prevent heart disease in women is huge because of how readily available mammograms are.
"This study suggests that we should exploit available data that may provide surrogate information about the likelihood of subclinical coronary disease," Dr. Jagat Narula, editor-in-chief of Cardiovascular Imaging, said in a press release. "In this study, BAC was found to be equally predictive of subclinical atherosclerosis as the standard risk factors. It is important to stress that the data are not driven from the prospective study design and has inherent selection bias. Although we and others have seen a correlation between BAC and CAC, the mechanism of calcification in these vessels is different and the direct link is unresolved. However, when you have the availability of data that shows relationship to subclinical atherosclerosis, one must pay attention to it."