The appearance of the breast parenchyma as seen on mammography is known to vary between individuals. The evidence is reviewed that some of the sources of this variation, namely, the densities referred to as "dysplasia", are related to breast cancer risk. We have carried out a meta-analysis of the published literature to determine the magnitude of the risk of breast cancer associated with mammographic densities by calculating summary odds ratios for studies grouped according to their design and the method used to classify mammographic parenchymal patterns. This has shown that subjects with mammographic densities have an increased risk of breast cancer relative to those without densities. Of the studies that used Wolfe's method of classification, cohort studies (n = 8) had a summary odds ratio of 5.19 (95% CI, 3.6 to 7.48); case control studies (n = 13) had a summary odds ratio of 1.8 (95% CI, 1.5 to 2.13); and prevalence surveys had a summary odds ratio of 0.54 (95% CI, 0.4 to 0.7). Other methods of classification, using quantitative estimates of the proportion of the breast occupied by densities, gave substantially higher odds ratios than Wolfe's system. The ability to recognize individuals within the population at different risks for breast cancer could be exploited in studies of potential etiological factors.