Breast density

Breast density on mammography can significantly vary between individuals. The density is a function of the relationship between radiolucent fat and radiodense glandular tissue.

Breast density varies with age and generally younger women have denser breasts (i.e. more glandular tissue relative to fat) and post menopausal women have progressively less gland and more fat as involution of the breast takes place with increasing age.


There are four BI-RADS categories for breast density:

  • A: fatty; breast is almost entirely fat
  • B: scattered fibroglandular; breast has scattered areas of fibroglandular density
  • C: heterogeneously dense; breast tissue is heterogeneously dense
  • D: dense; breast tissue is extremely dense

The latest edition of BI-RADS does not use percentages.

  • the incidence of IDC is higher in this group than in other groups of breast density likely as a combination of the amount of gland present as well as possible observation error
  • it is in this group where screening ultrasound is potentially beneficial

There is a historical note in the density of breasts 4; Wolfe initially postulated that breast densities could be divided into four categories which he called N1, P1, P2 and DY (or dysplastic). This correlates with the classification of four groups below. Wolfe suggested that the incidence of breast cancer was higher in the DY group than in the N1 group. The delay in diagnosis in DY breasts is likely a function of the complex appearance and not the parenchymal pattern itself.

Factors that can increase breast density
  • hormone replacement therapy: the effect is greater with combination hormone therapy than with oestrogen therapy alone
  • pregnancy
  • lactation
  • weight loss: from reduction of breast fat
  • breast cancer: especially inflammatory breast cancer
  • inflammation: mastitis
Factors that can decrease breast density
  • age, post-menopausal state
  • medications: e.g. Danazol 3
  • vitamin D and calcium intake in pre-menopausal women
  • increasing age
  • weight gain
  • acromegaly 2

The use of density determination is now mandatory in California, Connecticut 7, Texas, New York and Virginia. Patients have to be informed of the fact that they have "dense" breasts 5  with the implication that the dense breast has a potentially higher chance of developing a breast cancer 6. One caveat is the intra-observer variation in what constitutes "dense".

Contrast enhanced MRI is advocated as an adjunct to screening mammography in extremely dense breast; however, no large data is available in this regard. Hopefully, The DENSE Trial which is the study that is undergoing using the MR Imaging as an additional screening tool for breast cancer in females aged 50-75 Years with extremely dense breasts. 

Breast imaging and pathology
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Article information

rID: 12808
System: Breast
Section: Gamuts, Approach
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Breast density on mammography
  • Mammographic density

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Cases and figures

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    Low weight effect...
    Case 1: increased breast density due to weight loss
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    Case 2: increased density in lactation
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    Case 3: breast composition
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