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Heart Disease Health Center

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'Silent' Artery Disease on the Rise

Study Shows Symptomless Peripheral Artery Disease Increasing Among U.S. Women
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 5, 2007 (Orlando, Fla.) -- A silent type of artery disease that raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes is on the rise in American women, researchers say.

Using government data, they found that asymptomatic, or symptomless, peripheral artery disease (PAD) rates among women aged 40 and older rose from 4.1% in 1999-2000 to 6.3% in 2003-2004.

"A large number of people are at risk and don't know it," says researcher Andrew D. Sumner, MD, medical director of the Heart Station and Cardiac Prevention at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, Pa.

Among men, asymptomatic PAD rates fell from 3.3% in the earlier time period to 2.8% in the latter period.

The study was presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2007.

PAD and Heart Disease

In people with PAD, fatty deposits accumulate in the inner linings of artery walls, curbing the supply of oxygen-rich blood to limb muscles, particularly in the legs. It's a well-recognized risk factor for future heart attacks and strokes.

Starved for oxygen for long periods of time, leg muscles can cramp and begin hurting after people walk even short distances. Pain typically goes away after a few minutes of rest. But in severe cases of PAD, this leg pain occurs even at rest.

In the study, the researchers detected PAD before symptoms occurred by measuring the ratio of the blood pressure in the ankles and arms -- also referred to as the ankle-brachial index, or ABI. Those with an ABI of less than 0.9 were determined to have PAD.

Obesity and PAD

The increase in PAD among women appeared to be largely driven by a parallel rise in obesity, the study shows.

In the earlier time period studied, 32% of women met the criteria for obesity compared with 47% in the latter period. People with a body mass index (BMI) -- a ratio of height to weight -- of 30 or over are considered to be obese.

Other cardiovascular risk factors that may have played a role: smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes, Sumner tells WebMD. They also rose significantly over the time period studied.

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