Using routine mammograms to detect risk of heart disease

The saying a picture is worth a thousand words,’ is certainly true when screening for breast cancer in women but may it hold a dual purpose – helping doctors identify women with a high risk of heart disease also. This life-saving screening tool could be very valuable in detecting two leading causes of death in women, breast cancer and heart disease.

Why mammograms for detecting heart disease in women?

Mammograms work by using low-energy X-rays to “scan” breast tissue for irregularities and abnormalities indicating possible signs of cancer. As it turns out, research from the University of California, San Diego, found that mammograms also show the formation of breast arterial calcifications also known as coronary artery calcium, a dangerous buildup of calcium inside the arteries in the breast responsible for transporting oxygenated blood to the heart.

About 13 percent of women are estimated to have this buildup of calcium in the arteries in the breast. This condition is estimated to affect 10 percent of women in their 40s and about half of the women in their 80s. Researchers with the study stated that using mammograms to detect breast arterial calcifications could be used for early detections of heart disease, especially in women under age 60.

Women found to have breast arterial calcifications have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. This risk could lead to heart attack, stroke, and heart failure. Heart failure is a condition indicating a weakened heart that’s not pumping as well making it hard to supply the cells with enough blood, resulting in fatigue and shortness of breath, making everyday activities such as walking, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries more difficult.

Heart failure and women

It’s estimated that approximately 3.6 million women in the U.S. have heart failure and more than 40,000 women each year, die from it. Heart failure in women can be especially challenging. When compared to men, women tend to be older at the time of diagnosis with shortness of breath and difficulty exercising than men. Depression is another symptom associated with heart failure and is more prevalent in women.

Heart failure in women is often linked with high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, valvular disease, and diabetes mellitus.

Screening women for heart disease

Heart screening for women is much less common than women getting mammograms beginning at age 50 or colonoscopies starting at age 50. The only screening most women may have is to be asked if they have a strong family history of heart disease (such as familial hypercholesterolemia) or have health parameters done indicating heart issues such as hypertension or elevated cholesterol levels. Otherwise, women may be missed for heart disease if they are not having more thorough screenings for the condition.

Another concern is that women in their 30s and 40s may not have a primary care physician and only see their OB/GYN for their annual pap smear.  OB/GYNs are perfect for monitoring women’s reproductive health but are not necessarily screening women’s blood pressure or cholesterol readings.

Many women have more concerns of developing breast cancer than heart disease. Yet, one in three women will have heart disease in their lifetime compared to one in seven women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer.

Recognizing heart disease risk factors in women

It’s well known that for both women and men, traditional risk factors for heart disease – such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity – are common. But there are other risk factors often playing a bigger role in the development of heart disease in women to be aware of.

These heart disease risk factors women should know include:

  • Diabetes: Women with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease than men
  • Mental stress and depression: Suffering from depression makes it difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle and follow medical advice and recommendations
  • Smoking: Women who smoke are at a greater risk for heart disease than men
  • Inactivity: Women are often less physically active than men, which is a major risk factor for heart disease
  • Menopause: Low levels of estrogen after menopause pose a significant risk of developing buildup of plaque narrowing blood vessels
  • Pregnancy complications: High blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy increase the mother’s long-term risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, increasing the risk for heart disease
  • Family history of early heart disease: Again, a greater risk factor for women than men
  • Inflammatory disease: Women diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and others can increase their risk for heart disease

It’s important for women to talk to their doctor about their personal risk factors for heart disease. Ask about using mammograms to detect breast arterial calcification besides detecting breast cancer and take steps to make lifestyle changes to lower the risk of developing heart disease.

Dr. David Samadi is the Director of Men’s Health and Urologic Oncology at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island. He’s a renowned and highly successful board-certified Urologic Oncologist Expert and Robotic Surgeon in New York City, regarded as one of the leading prostate surgeons in the U.S., with vast expertise in prostate cancer treatment and Robotic-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy.  Dr. Samadi is a medical contributor to NewsMax TV and is also the author of The Ultimate MANual, Dr. Samadi’s Guide to Men’s Health and Wellness, available online both on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Visit Dr. Samadi’s websites at robotic oncology and prostate cancer 911.

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