Mammogram could detect heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes

26 Aug 2020 | 3 mins

Breast cancer isn’t the only disease the annual mammogram might detect in the not too distant future.

Researchers from The University of Western Australia and Royal Perth Hospital Research Foundation have found evidence that breast arterial calcification, found in a third of mammograms, could potentially screen other preventable conditions, including coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

"This study holds the potential to recognise it during a routine breast examination."

Dr Sing Ching Lee

Dr Sing Ching Lee made the discovery as part of her PhD at UWA.

Dr Lee’s preliminary research suggests women with breast arterial calcification could be more likely to have coronary artery disease, hypertension and diabetes mellitus.

Dr Lee said studies on cardiovascular disease in women had always been lacking. 

“This study holds the potential to recognise it during a routine breast examination and offer patients preventative therapy,” Dr Lee said.

Dr Lee’s PhD supervisor, cardiologist Professor Carl Schultz, said the risk of cardiovascular disease in women was often underestimated in clinical practice because women were underrepresented in the studies on which the risk predictions are based. 

“This new research seeks to address this imbalance by developing a female-specific method of risk detection,” Professor Schultz said. “If successful, the new approach could readily be tagged onto existing mammography screening programs at almost no cost. Further studies are urgently needed to address the gaps in knowledge.”

Dr Lee’s findings, which have just been published in PLOS ONE journal, will inform an upcoming radiological study which has recently been funded by the Royal Perth Hospital imaging research grant.

“Most of the studies to date have included symptomatic women, so it remains unclear whether the measurement of breast arterial calcification could be used as a screening tool for coronary artery disease in asymptomatic women who undergo mammography,” Dr Lee said.

“There may also be an important association between breast arterial calcification severity and coronary artery disease, but consensus on the optimum approach to grade breast arterial calcification is required. Once this is achieved, we can think about the next steps.”

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