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Breast X-Rays May Predict Stroke Risk

Mammograms Spot Calcium Buildup That Can Signal Atherosclerosis
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Mammograms and Stroke Risk

Feb. 21, 2008 (New Orleans) -- Mammograms may help predict whether a woman is at increased risk for stroke, new research suggests.

That because breast X-rays can spot benign calcium deposits in the arteries, says Paul S. Dale, MD, chief of surgical oncology at the University of Missouri's Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia.

The presence or absence of calcium is related to the degree of plaque buildup in the arteries, he says. And plaque buildup, or atherosclerosis, in the arteries leading to the brain is a major cause of stroke.

"If you have calcification, there's a good chance you're at increased risk of stroke. If you don't have them, the imaging suggests you're at lower risk," says Amy Loden, a medical student who worked on the study.

The findings were presented at the American Stroke Association's (ASA) International Stroke Conference.

Mammograms Reveal Calcium Deposits

Previous studies, including some by the University of Missouri researchers, have shown a link between calcium deposits and diabetes and heart disease.

The new research is based on the premise that if you have noncancerous calcium deposits in the breast arteries, there's a good chance you have them in the arteries leading to the brain, too.

The researchers examined the mammograms of 793 healthy women, ages 40 to 90, with no history of stroke, heart disease, or diabetes.

On the X-ray, the calcium deposits look like little white dots along the edge of the artery.

Results showed that 86 of the women, or about 11%, had the calcifications.

Then, they looked at the mammograms of 204 women who had had a stroke; 115, or 56%, had calcifications.

Test Benefits Younger Women

Further analysis showed that among healthy women, the older a person, the more likely she is to have calcifications in the arteries.

"But a younger woman who had a stroke was much more likely to have calcifications than the general population," Dale tells WebMD.

That means the test is more sensitive in younger women, Loden says.

"We're excited because this could give us a screening tool for younger women, who are in their 40s," she says.

If the research pans out in future study, Loden says she foresees a scenario in which "a primary-care physician gets a call telling him that a patient has calcification. They'll know this patient is at increased risk. So the doctor can step in and work with the patient to modify other risk factors," such as keeping blood pressure and cholesterol at optimal levels through lifestyle changes and/or medication.

Ralph Sacco, MD, an ASA spokesman and head of neurology at the University of Miami, says the approach is worthy of further study.

There are other tests "out there to look for hardening of the arteries," or atherosclerosis, he adds.

They include ultrasound imaging of the carotid neck arteries and magnetic resonance angiograms, a sophisticated type of magnetic resonance image (MRI) scan. An advantage of the other tests is that they can be used in men and women, Sacco tells WebMD.

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