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The Heart and Vascular Disease

Vascular disease includes any condition that affects the circulatory system. As the heart beats, it pumps blood through a system of blood vessels called the circulatory system. The vessels are elastic tubes that carry blood to every part of the body. Arteries carry blood away from the heart while veins return it.

Vascular disease ranges from diseases of your arteries, veins, and lymph vessels to blood disorders that affect circulation. The following are conditions that fall under the category of vascular disease.

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Peripheral Artery Disease

Like the blood vessels of the heart (coronary arteries), your peripheral arteries (blood vessels outside your heart) also may develop atherosclerosis, the build-up of fat and cholesterol deposits, called plaque, on the inside walls. Over time, the build-up narrows the artery. Eventually the narrowed artery causes less blood to flow and a condition called "ischemia" can occur. Ischemia is inadequate blood flow to the body's tissue.

  • A blockage in the coronary arteries can cause symptoms of chest pain (angina) or a heart attack.
  • A blockage in the carotid arteries (the arteries supplying the brain) can lead to a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.
  • A blockage in the legs can lead to leg pain or cramps with activity (a condition called claudication), changes in skin color, sores or ulcers, and feeling tired in the legs. Total loss of circulation can lead to gangrene and loss of a limb.
  • A blockage in the renal arteries (arteries supplying the kidneys) can cause renal artery disease (stenosis). The symptoms include uncontrolled hypertension (high blood pressure), heart failure, and abnormal kidney function.

Aneurysm

An aneurysm is an abnormal bulge in the wall of a blood vessel. They can form in any blood vessel, but they occur most commonly in the aorta (aortic aneurysm) which is the main blood vessel leaving the heart. The two types of aortic aneurysm are:

  • Thoracic aortic aneurysm (part of aorta in the chest)
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm

Small aneurysms generally pose no threat. However, one is at increased risk for:

  • Atherosclerotic plaque (fat and calcium deposits) formation at the site of the aneurysm.
  • A clot (thrombus) may form at the site and dislodge.
  • Increase in the aneurysm size, causing it to press on other organs, causing pain. 
  • Aneurysm rupture -- because the artery wall thins at this spot, it is fragile and may burst under stress. A sudden rupture of an aortic aneurysm may be life threatening.

 

Renal (Kidney) Artery Disease

Renal artery disease is most commonly caused by atherosclerosis of the renal arteries (see above). It occurs in people with generalized vascular disease. Less often, renal artery disease can be caused by a congenital (present at birth) abnormal development of the tissue that makes up the renal arteries. This type of renal artery disease typically occurs in younger age groups.

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