The amount of radiologically dense breast-tissue appearing on a mammogram varies between women because of differences in the composition of breast tissue, and is referred to here as mammographic density. This review presents evidence that mammographic density is a strong risk factor for breast cancer, and that risk of breast cancer is four to five times greater in women with density in more than 75% of the breast than in women with little or no density in the breast. Density in more than 50% of the breast could account for about a third of breast cancers. The epidemiology of mammographic density is consistent with its being a marker of susceptibility to breast cancer. Twin studies have shown that the proportion of the breast occupied by density, at a given age, is highly heritable, and inherited factors explain 63% of the variance. Mammographic breast density has the characteristics of a quantitative trait and might be determined by genes that are easier to identify than those for breast cancer itself. The genes that determine breast density might also be associated with risk of breast cancer, and their identification is also likely to provide insights into the biology of the breast and identify potential targets for preventive strategies.