Hardening of the Arteries Is a Red Flag for Vascular Disease, Including Heart Attack and Stroke
Peripheral arterial disease (PAD), also known as peripheral vascular disease (PVD), is a very common condition affecting 12-20 percent of Americans age 65 and older. PAD develops most commonly as a result of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which occurs when cholesterol and scar tissue build up, forming a substance called plaque inside the arteries. This is a very serious condition. The clogged arteries cause decreased blood flow to the legs, which can result in pain when walking, and eventually gangrene and amputation.
Because atherosclerosis is a systemic disease (that is, affects the body as a whole), individuals with PAD are likely to have blocked arteries in other areas of the body. Thus, those with PAD are at increased risk for heart disease, aortic aneurysms and stroke. PAD is also a marker for diabetes, hypertension and other conditions.
PAD may also be caused by blood clots.
- PAD is a disease of the arteries that affects 10 million Americans.
- PAD can happen to anyone, regardless of age, and is most commonly seen in men and women over age 50.
The most common test for PAD is the ankle-brachial index (ABI), a painless exam in which ultrasound is used to measure the ratio of blood pressure in the feet and arms. Based on the results of an ABI as well as one’s symptoms and risk factors for PADâ€”a doctor can decide if further tests are needed. PAD also can be diagnosed noninvasively with an imaging technique called magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) or with computed tomography (CT) angiography.
PAD is a major public health issue, and the Society of Interventional Radiology recommends greater screening efforts through the use of the ankle-brachial index (ABI) test.
The ABI is a simple, painless test that compares the blood pressure reading in the arm and ankle. It is a direct measure of fatty plaque buildup in leg arteries and an indirect gauge of plaque accumulations throughout the entire cardiovascular system.
The blood pressure in your arms and ankles is checked using a regular blood pressure cuff and a special ultrasound stethoscope called a Doppler. The pressure in your foot is compared to the pressure in your arm to determine how well your blood is flowing and whether further tests are needed.
Because atherosclerosis is a systemic disease, individuals developing plaque in their legs are likely to have plaque building up in the carotid arteries, which can lead to stroke, or the coronary arteries, which can lead to heart attack. Early detection of PAD is important because these individuals are at significantly increased risk, and preventive measures can be taken.
An individual with an ABI of 0.3 (high risk) has a two- to three-fold increased risk of five-year cardiovascular death compared to a patient with an ABI of 0.95 (normal or low risk).