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At the Heart of Vascular Disease

Aug 12, 2014 09:00AM ● By Cate Reynolds
Most people know that cardiovascular disease, also called heart disease, is the leading cause of death for both women and men in the United States.

But the term refers to more than just the heart.

Cardiovascular disease also refers to illnesses involving the veins, arteries and capillaries – illnesses that can cause serious damage and even death if left untreated.

According to the American Vascular Association, approximately 20 to 30 million people are at risk for vascular diseases. And, the association states, vascular diseases outside the heart cause almost as much death and disability as heart disease.

Some of the most common and deadly vascular diseases include:

Abdominal aortic aneurysms (AAA) – These aneurysms occur in the aorta, the body’s largest artery, when the aortic wall weakens, resulting in a widening or ballooning of the vessel. The vessel, which supplies blood to the abdomen, pelvis and legs, grows larger and may eventually rupture if left untreated. About 80 percent of ruptured aortic aneurysms lead to death. Most people who have an aortic aneurysm do not experience symptoms until it is too late.

Carotid artery disease (CAD) – This disease occurs when the carotid arteries, the main blood vessels to the brain, develop atherosclerosis—hardening of the arteries due to plaque build-up. CAD causes more than half of the strokes occurring in the United States. Symptoms often go unnoticed until the artery is severely blocked. For many, a stroke is the first sign of the disease.

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) – This disease occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries carrying blood to the head, organs and limbs. In most cases, the disease affects arteries in the legs, blocking blood flow and leading to pain and numbness. If left untreated, PAD can lead to leg infections and even amputation.

While these diseases can cause serious health problems, there are ways to prevent them. Quick and painless vascular screenings detect vascular issues early on, giving patients a chance to receive comprehensive treatment before the disease escalates.

Vascular specialists use a non-invasive ultrasound machine to scan the neck for CAD and the stomach for AAA. They also measure blood pressure in the ankle to check for PAD. Combined, the three screenings take less than 20 minutes. After the screening, participants typically meet with a physician or nurse practitioner to review results. They also leave with copies of their results to share with their health care providers.

Screenings are most useful for men and women who are older than 55 and have the following risk factors:

Family history of vascular disease and/or circulatory problems
High blood cholesterol
High blood pressure
Prior stroke

A painless, 20-minute screening could save your life. Ask your primary care physician or local hospital about when and where vascular screenings take place.

“At the Heart of Vascular Disease – How Vascular Screenings Can Save Your Life” provided by University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center.