Evidence accumulating for nearly 30 years supports the association between breast density and breast cancer [1–5]. Although the notion remains controversial, breast density may be a biomarker of risk . In addition to its influence on breast cancer risk, breast density reduces the accuracy of screening mammography [11, 12, 26, 27], particularly in younger women  who tend to have denser breasts . Perhaps as a direct consequence of reduced screening accuracy, breast density is associated with increased risk of interval breast cancers , with an adverse impact on breast cancer prognosis.
Most studies of breast cancer risk have shown an inverse effect of age at menarche [13–15, 29], but previous studies of the relationship between age at menarche and breast density have produced inconsistent results. A positive association was seen in two studies [16, 18], including a large HMO population of nearly 30,000 women in Seattle . Studies of breast cancer family members , Singaporean women , and Hispanic women  found no association between menarcheal age and breast density. Findings from the HMO-based study suggested the positive effect of age at menarche was stronger in the youngest and oldest age groups , whereas a study of nearly 5,000 women in Guernsey found significant positive effects only in postmenopausal women . In contrast, our age-stratified analyses suggested weaker effects in the oldest age groups, although the interaction involving age and age at menarche was not statistically significant. Also in this study, analyses stratified on BMI suggested that age at menarche was positively associated with breast density in most BMI groups, but the association was tenuous in women with high BMI, and the interaction involving age at menarche and high BMI was statistically significant. A positive association between age at menarche and breast density, even if confined to women with lower BMI, seems paradoxical, given the usual inverse association between age at menarche and breast cancer and the strong positive association between breast density and breast cancer risk.
Consistent with some [16–18, 20, 30, 31], but not all [6, 19] previous efforts, our findings show that age at first birth and parity are generally associated with breast density in a pattern resembling known associations with breast cancer risk. However, our stratified analyses indicate that the influence of the reproductive variables is less pronounced in women with high BMI, and our modeling results confirmed interactions involving BMI and both variables. These findings, along with our findings for age at menarche, are consistent with the possibility that hormonal or reproductive events are less influential in heavier women, whose circulating hormone levels may be influenced by conversion in peripheral adipose tissue. We also noted a stronger positive influence of age at first birth in postmenopausal women, although a previous study of Native American women found stronger effects in premenopausal women . Our sample was large, and the multivariable results were inconsistent across categories of age at first birth; thus, it is possible the interaction between menopausal status and age at first birth was due to statistical artifact rather than true effect modification.
Only one variable, family history of breast cancer, was not involved in interactions with age, BMI, or menopausal status. Although previous studies have not shown an effect of family history on breast density [3, 6, 19], this is likely due to limited power to detect a weak association. The modest inverse effect of menopausal status has been noted previously [19, 20, 30]. Most previous reports, although not all , found a positive association between use of HT and breast density [16, 17, 19, 30, 32, 33], resembling the well-known association between use of these hormones and breast cancer risk. The large size of our study allowed an assessment of HT use in young postmenopausal women, and these analyses showed a modest but significant inverse effect in postmenopausal women less than 50 years of age, a phenomenon that has no clear explanation. In women of age 50 or more, the positive effect of HT on density increased with age, perhaps reflecting a corresponding decrease in density in untreated women in the same age group. Consistent with our findings, at least two previous studies of breast density showed an increasing effect of HT use when examined over increasing age groups [16, 32]. A prospective study of breast cancer risk also noted stronger HT effects in older women , although this is not always seen . The age-related increase observed in our study could potentially reflect a longer duration of HT use, but at least two studies have shown that most of the increase in breast density occurs soon after HT initiation [33, 34], and duration of use was not associated with increased breast density in the HMO study . In contrast, the positive influence of HT on breast cancer risk is usually observed for current/recent and long-term use [35–40]. While speculative, it is possible that sustained breast density associated with long term HT use mediates the relationship between HT and breast cancer risk. Finally, our data did not indicate a stronger effect of HT on breast density in leaner woman, but a few studies [38–40], including a collaborative analysis of 51 studies , suggested a stronger association between HT and breast cancer risk in leaner women.
Although the type of HT used (estrogen alone or estrogen combined with progesterone) was not assessed in our study, a possible role of progesterone is suggested by reports that breast density is greater during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle [41–43]. In addition, at least two studies have found substantially greater changes in parenchymal patterns in women initiating use of a combined estrogen plus progesterone hormone regimen, as opposed to single agent estrogen [33, 34]. Results from the Women’s Health Initiative randomized clinical trials of postmenopausal hormones also indicate that the increased risk of breast cancer is due to the combined regimen  rather than single agent estrogen .
Strengths of our study include the large size of our sample, allowing analyses stratified by relatively refined age and BMI groups, which has not been possible in most previous studies, and good representation of the underlying population. Epidemiologic data were obtained on the time of the mammographic visit, ensuring updated information, and importantly, a high level of correspondence between use of hormone replacement therapy and the assessment of breast density. Limitations of our study include 11% of women for whom BMI is missing, reliance of self-report for BMI, and a lack of information regarding the type and duration of HT use. Our definition of family history of breast cancer included second degree relatives, which may have attenuated the effect of this variable. Also, the BI-RADS scores are qualitative, as opposed to digital quantification of density, and were applied by community radiologists, who despite being trained to use this system, may apply it differently. Nevertheless, our general findings in terms of the direction of effects for reproductive factors and HT use were compatible with those of most previous studies.
In conclusion, our results, based on the largest study to date, confirm earlier findings that most established breast cancer risk factors behave similarly in relation to breast density, consistent with the notion that breast density mediates breast cancer risk. However, our data indicated an inverse effect of HT in younger women, and a positive influence in older women, which has not been reported previously. We also noted effect modification by BMI, in which the positive effects of age at menarche and age at first birth, and the inverse effects of parity were less apparent in heavier women. Further investigation, including biological studies, may elucidate the complex interrelationships of hormones, BMI, breast density, and breast cancer and potentially offer opportunities for breast cancer prevention.