Researchers at Mount Sinai find digital mammography can help spot calcified plaques in breast tissue that can lead to heart attack or stroke.

The risk of heart disease may not get the same attention as breast cancer. However, it’s responsible for one in four deaths in women.

“We know, offhand, that women’s heart health is largely neglected in both research and practice. Hopefully that’s changing,” Dr. Laurie Margolies, associate professor of radiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, told Healthline.

Breast cancer, on the other hand, is estimated to develop in one in every eight women with increasingly better survival rates the earlier it is detected.

One way of ensure both diseases are detected involves taking breast cancer screening technology and using it to spot early clues of heart disease.

In a study published today in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology Imaging, researchers stated that using existing mammogram data could help women reduce their risks of fatal heart attacks and strokes.

“It’s really practice changing,” Margolies, the study’s lead author, said.

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During a mammogram, a radiologist has to distinguish calcified tissue, whether in the breast or arteries.

While most often benign, calcified breast tissue could be the early stages of cancer.

Signs of calcification in arteries are often noted but dismissed because they’re unrelated to breast cancer.

“This is something that’s observed with every mammogram, but it’s never discussed,” Dr. Harvey Hecht, study author and director of cardiovascular imaging at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital, told Healthline.

Breast arterial calcification (BAC) can also be a sign of calcium buildup in other arteries, particularly those that supply oxygenated blood to the heart. When this occurs, a woman’s chance of heart attack and stroke dramatically increases.

Hecht, Margolies, and other researchers used the records of 292 women who had undergone digital mammography and computed tomography (CT scan). They tested to see if BAC detected during mammography could help detect coronary artery calcification (CAC).

Overall, the mammograms that showed BAC caught about 70 percent of the cases of CAC. Women aged 39 to 59 are typically at a lower risk of heart problems. However, the detection rate was as high as 81 percent.

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The American Cancer Society recommends women aged 40 to 44 have the choice to begin annual mammograms. They also recommend women aged 45 to 54 get screened every year. After 55, women are encouraged to get a mammogram every two years.

Early detection can help doctors instruct patients on how to lower their risk of heart disease.

After menopause a women’s risk of heart attack and stroke is the same as men’s. However, detecting heart problems early can help women make the necessary treatment and lifestyle changes.

As 97 percent of mammography machines in the U.S. are digital, the implementation of such a practice may be done with existing technology, making investment minimal.

The mammography results could be forwarded to a woman’s doctor or cardiologist for follow-up. The risks for CAC and other potentially fatal conditions could then be addressed.

While this study offers a potential way to use existing technology in new ways, researchers say the premise needs to be tested by following live patients to determine whether detection of BAC would correlate to cases of CAC.

In the meantime, researchers are hopeful they’ve discovered a cost-effective way to improve the rates of the most prevalent health condition facing women today.

“This is a free opportunity to help millions of women,” Hecht said.

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