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How an annual mammogram could also reveal your risk of heart disease

Getting an annual mammogram for older women is essential to detecting breast cancer. It may also help detect heart disease, research shows.
/ Source: TODAY

For women in their 40s, getting an annual mammogram is essential to detect breast cancer. But new research has found that it may also help reveal risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death for women in the United States.

A recent study conducted by Dr. Laurie Margolies, an associate professor of radiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, found that nearly 70 percent of mammograms with breast arterial calcification (hardening of the arteries, which makes it harder for blood to pass through) correlated with the presence of coronary artery calcium.

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This is a crucial finding: If there is calcification in the arteries of the breast, there is a likelihood of calcification in the arteries that are taking the blood to the heart — which puts you at increased risk for a heart attack.

"This can save women's lives," Margolies told TODAY. "Potentially, we can decrease the number of women having heart attacks or strokes in their 50s, 60s and 70s by looking at their mammograms in their 40s and 50s."

Until now, most doctors ignored this calcification since it's not an indicator for cancer, but now it could signal a follow-up appointment with a cardiologist.

"Hopefully it can lead to some women who might not go to their primary care physician or who might only go to an obstetrician-gynecologist for primary care to investigate their heart health," said Margolies.

A big question is whether looking for the calcification should become standard of care, said NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar.

"There is no consensus if this should be done routinely and repeatedly," said Azar. "Certainly, the researchers here are suggesting that should happen."

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Azar explained how the study might affect your next mammogram.

Should I ask: 'Can you look for this as well?' Can any radiologist see it, or does it require special training?

Azar: It's very easy to see with the naked eye...The issue is whether or not they can do that medically and legally without having the proper training. It does have to be scored — the calcification gets a score on the mammogram and also gets a score on the CAT scan of the heart.

Certainly someone could do a casual reading of it, but once it becomes in the body of the report of the mammogram, there is a responsibility to follow that up.

That's the inherent message: We may be picking up heart disease in asymptomatic women who otherwise wouldn't be getting screened for cardiovascular disease with this test that they're already getting done.

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If your radiologist see a calcification, what happens next?

Azar: Then you follow up with your primary care doctor and get a referral for a cardiologist.