What you need to know about dense breast tissue

Breast density describes the ratio of fat to connective tissue and glands on the mammogram.

By: Sanford Health News .

woman getting a mammogram
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Breast density describes the ratio of fat to connective tissue and glands on the mammogram. It is a word that only describes how the breasts look on mammogram, not how they feel. Each woman’s breasts have fat, connective tissue as well as milk ducts and lobules that together are glandular tissue. Dense breasts have higher amounts of glandular and connective tissue and also lower amounts of fatty tissue.

Jill Klemin, M.D., is a board-certified family medicine physician at Sanford North Clinic in Bismarck, North Dakota, and shares her insight.

What causes breast density?

Typically, breast density is inherited, but other factors can contribute. Women who are underweight for their height or have used postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy may have higher breast density. Lower breast density occurs as a woman:

  • Ages
  • Has children
  • Has taken certain hormonal medications

Does having dense breast tissue increase cancer risk?

Studies have shown that women with extremely dense breasts do have a higher risk for breast cancer than women with lower breast density. Experts are unsure why. However, the main concern with having dense breasts is that it can make breast cancer harder to spot on a mammogram. This is because dense breast tissue appears white on a mammogram, just like cancer.

What are the screening recommendations?

The best way to find breast cancer early is to have regular mammograms. This is why the Edith Breast Center encourages women to start screening mammograms at age 40 and continue on a yearly basis.

Are additional screenings required for dense breasts?

No screening recommendations beyond mammography have been established for dense breasts, although research is underway. 3D mammography is able to evaluate the dense tissue better. It is important for women with dense breast tissue to talk with their doctor about questions and concerns. A doctor will look at personal risk factors to determine whether a woman should have more screening tests, such as a screening MRI. Women can reduce cancer risk by maintaining a healthy body weight, getting enough exercise and also limiting alcoholic drinks.

Are there state laws about breast density?

Some states, such as North Dakota, require health care providers to notify women when a mammogram indicates dense breasts. Many states also require insurance providers to cover additional imaging tests.

Are there special resources available for women with dense breasts?

Edith Sanford Breast Center along with the Breast Specialty Clinic inside Sanford North Clinic in Bismarck and our genetic counselors provide personal risk evaluations, breast cancer screening, chemoprevention and genetic evaluation for women at increased risk of breast cancer due to personal risk factors.

As part of her practice, Klemin participates in the Breast Specialty Clinic at Sanford Health. Dr. Klemin received her medical degree from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences at Grand Forks, and she completed her residency in family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. She has additional training in breast health and specializes in patients with atypical breast lesions, masses or a strong family history of breast cancer.