Harvard Heart Letter

Can mammograms help reveal heart disease?

Research we're watching

Mammograms, which are widely used to detect early breast cancer, may also be an effective tool for spotting early signs of heart disease, a small study suggests.

The study, in the April JACC: Cardiology Imaging, involved nearly 300 women free of heart disease. All underwent both a mammogram and a computed tomography (CT) scan of the chest. The mammograms showed calcifications (which look like a chalked line) in the arteries within the breast in just over 40% of the women. These artery calcifications are different from the irregular spots of calcifications that may indicate early cancer.

Researchers found a good correlation between the breast artery calcifications and the amount of calcium buildup in the women's coronary arteries, which was measured in the CT scans. Coronary artery calcification, or CAC, is an early sign of heart disease.

In addition, breast artery calcification appears to be at least as good for predicting CAC than other well-known cardiovascular risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. But for now, it's too soon for women to ask whether their mammograms show signs of early heart disease, given the lack of data about whether such information could improve their health outcomes.