Dr. Lori Mosca, Director of Preventive Cardiology at New York Presbyterian Hospital and spokesperson for the American Heart Association, visited The Early Show to explain the meaning of the study.
Dr. Mosca says the Mayo Clinic study reveals calcifications in breast arteries that may indicate an increased chance of heart disease. The abnormalities show up as distinct white lines on mammogram images and should not be confused with other types of breast calcifications that raise suspicions about cancer.
Although the evidence needs to be confirmed with follow-up studies, she says, the hope is that mammograms could provide an extra piece of information that could help discover women who are at increased risk of narrowing in the arteries supplying their hearts.
The Mayo Clinic studied 1,803 women. The researchers reviewed mammograms for patients who had also undergone angiogram tests for heart disease. The average age of the women was 65 and they already were at increased risk for heart disease based on their age. Women with breast artery calcifications were 20 percent more likely to have heart disease than those without them.
The calcifications detected are calcium deposits that can form in diseased arteries narrowed by fatty plaque. The risk from calcifications detected by risk, like high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, but such calcifications could be noted in radiologists' mammogram reports for referral to a doctor for further assessment.
It makes sense that if there's calcification in the breast arteries there might be calcification in the other arteries.
Dr. Mosca says it is important to point out that the study is preliminary. A mammogram as a valid screening test for heart disease cannot be confirmed. However, the study suggests that medical experts should take a serious look at the test. In other words, a woman should not be recommended to have a mammogram for the purpose of screening for heart disease. But, if a woman is found to have arterial calcifications when she is undergoing a mammogram to screen for breast cancer, she should be referred for further testing.
Dr. Mosca says the findings have potential because so many women die of heart disease, and mammograms are routine. If further studies confirm a mammogram is useful for heart disease detection, it could be an easy way to get important information.
Heart disease is the number one cause of death for women, claiming more than 350,000 lives each year. In fact, 40 percent of women who die suddenly from coronary heart disease will have no previous symptoms.
That many women die each year unaware of their heart ailments highlights the need for better detection. Perhaps mammograms can provide another tool do that in the form of a test that's already paid for in terms of time and health care dollars.