The radiological appearance of the female breast varies among individuals because of differences in the relative amounts and X-ray attenuation characteristics of fat and epithelial and stromal tissues. Fat is radiolucent and appears dark on a mammogram, and epithelium and stroma are radiodense and appear light. We review here the evidence that these variations, known as mammographic parenchymal patterns, are related to risk of breast cancer. Studies that used quantitative measurement to classify mammographic patterns have consistently found that women with dense tissue in more than 60-75% of the breast are at four to six times greater risk of breast cancer than those with no densities. These risk estimates are independent of the effects of other risk factors and have been shown to persist over at least 10 years of follow up. Estimates of attributable risk suggest that this risk factor may account for as many as 30% of breast cancer cases. Mammographically dense breast tissue is associated both with epithelial proliferation and with stromal fibrosis. The relationship between these histological features and risk of breast cancer may by explained by the known actions of growth factors that are thought to play important roles in breast development and carcinogenesis. Mammographically dense tissue differs from most other breast cancer risk factors in the strength of the associated relative and attributable risks for breast cancer, and because it can be changed by hormonal and dietary interventions. This risk factor may be most useful as a means of investigating the etiology of breast cancer and of testing hypotheses about potential preventive strategies.

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