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How Mammograms Can Reveal Heart Disease

Posted 8/17/2016 by UHBlog

Does your lifestyle or family history put you at risk of a heart attack or stroke? Talk to us about preventing cardiovascular disease.

How Mammograms Can Reveal Heart Disease

You’re probably aware of the importance of regular mammograms in detecting breast cancer, but did you know the screening test may uncover heart disease, too?

According to cardiologist Christine Zirafi, MD, mammograms traditionally screen for cancer by looking for irregularly shaped calcifications in the breast. But a recently presented study indicates calcium deposits that show up as parallel lines may be a build-up of cholesterol in the arteries. Known as atherosclerosis, it can lead to heart attack or stroke.

The study, which was presented at the American College of Cardiology meeting in April, revealed mammograms were 70 percent accurate in identifying women with hardening of the arteries. Experts caution, however, that atherosclerosis can’t be diagnosed by mammograms alone. The screening test just alerts doctors there is a potential risk for developing the condition.

“We’re not using mammograms to screen for heart disease, but we may say, ‘Hey, you have this abnormality and you need to get it checked out,’” Dr. Zirafi says. “Mammograms are recommended in women ages 50 to 74, but a lot of these women are not getting heart tests, so this is an added bonus.”

Mammograms may become an important tool in detecting early heart disease and saving lives, says Dr. Zirafi, who points out cardiovascular disease kills more women than men each year. Around 300,000 women die from heart attacks or strokes annually, compared to 40,000 who succumb to breast cancer. More than 80,000 of the women who die from heart attack are under age 65.

Risk factors for heart disease include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Family history
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Preeclampsia during pregnancy
  • Certain inflammatory diseases, like lupus

Women should follow their obstetrician and gynecologist’s or physician’s recommendations for mammograms, Dr. Zirafi says.

“And if they get a mammogram, they should starting asking doctors if they will look to see if there’s calcium in the arteries of the breast,” she says.

Christine Zirafi, MD is the director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Center in the University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute and a cardiologist at the University Hospitals Parma Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Zirafi or any other doctor online.

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