Learn what causes vascular disease, some different types of vascular disease, the risk factors for its onset and clinical options for diagnosis and treatment.
What is Vascular Disease?
Vascular disease, also called atherosclerosis, is a common affliction of the blood vessels, specifically the arteries, in the circulatory system. The purpose of arteries is to pump blood from the lungs, where it is oxygenated (filled with oxygen), to all of the organs throughout the body, where the oxygen is used to keep cells alive.
During vascular disease, the walls of the arteries have grown thicker, encroaching on the space inside the artery. When this happens, the blood inside the arteries has less space through which to flow and is circulated at a slower rate.The result is that organs and cells in the body do not receive enough oxygen from the blood, and a variety of symptoms, such as cramping, numbness, weakness and coldness, ensue. In extreme cases, peripheral organs and tissue begin to die or a portion of the thickened blood vessel wall breaks off into the blood stream and travels to the brain or heart where it causes a blockage called a stroke or heart attack, respectively.
Types of Vascular Disease
Vascular disease and plaque buildup can occur in different places in the body.
Here are some of the most common types of vascular disease:
- Peripheral Artery Disease is the buildup of plaque in the peripheral arteries.
- Renal Artery Disease is the buildup of plaque in the arteries that bring blood to the kidneys.
- Angina is a blockage in coronary (heart) arteries that causes chest pain.
- Claudication is caused by a blockage in arteries supplying the legs.
- Buerger’s Disease affects smaller blood vessels to supply fingers and toes.
Causes of Vascular Disease
A number of factors can contribute to the thickening of arterial walls. Inflammatory stimuli, such as LDL (the ‘bad’ cholesterol your doctor keeps warning you about) or various pathogens, irritate the endothelial cells that line the walls of the artery.
This irritation causes the endothelial cells to recruit the immune system, and a variety of immune cells and molecules respond to the site of the irritation. These other cells, as well as cholesterol and fat, pile up inside the blood vessel wall in a paste known as plaque. The plaque encroaches upon the blood flow within the artery, causing vascular disease.
Risk Factors for Vascular Disease
There are several risk factors for vascular disease, some modifiable and others non-modifiable. Modifiable factors (factors that an individual can control) include smoking, physical inactivity, elevated blood sugar, and high cholesterol in the diet.
Non-modifiable risk factors include age (the older the individual, the more time there has been for plaque to accumulate) and family history. The prevalence of vascular disease in an individual’s family may suggest various undetected or unidentified risk factors for vascular disease are also present in the individual.
Diagnosing Vascular Disease
After assessing the symptoms and family history of a patient suspected of having vascular disease, a physician can employ a handful of tests to determine whether this is the case. A stethoscope can be used to listen to the sound of blood flow, which may be abnormal in vascular disease. Blood pressure, which is higher when artery walls are thicker, is also measured. Ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to visualize the presence of plaques.
Treatments for Vascular Disease
Treatment for vascular disease mostly involves diet and lifestyle changes: more exercise and healthier foods will slow the buildup of plaque in the arteries.
A doctor might prescribe a drug to lower the patient’s cholesterol or an antiplatelet drug to prevent the formation of blood clots, which would be more likely to cause harmful blockages in the shrunken arteries.
Vascular disease is the thickening of arterial walls. It is caused by cholesterol and other factors that lead to a buildup of plaque. It leads to an inability of blood to circulate properly, which damages organs throughout the body, or even to a blockage that will result in a heart attack or stroke. It can be prevented or treated by diet and lifestyle changes or, in more advanced disease stages, drugs to lower cholesterol and prevent blood clots.