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Ischemic vascular disease is a condition characterized by the narrowing of blood vessels. When arteries are severely constricted and blood flow is diminished, the body’s cells are deprived of nutrients and oxygen. The heart or brain might suffer if the ischemia is located in those regions. If this condition occurs outside these areas, it manifests as peripheral artery disease. Stroke, heart attack and dementia are some of the possible outcomes of this disease.
One of the main causes of ischemic vascular disease is atherosclerosis, the buildup of fats and other substances that form plaque inside the arteries. When the inner lining of the arteries is damaged, inflammation occurs and plaque begins to form. Although plaque buildup might be worse in certain arteries, people with atherosclerosis generally have the condition throughout their cardiovascular system. Risk factors for developing atherosclerosis include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Other factors that increase the likelihood of developing atherosclerosis are diet, lack of exercise and obesity.
The most common form of ischemic vascular disease is peripheral artery disease, affecting the blood vessels outside of the heart and brain. As plaque builds in the arteries to the legs, arms or kidneys, the blood flow is gradually blocked. The condition may be asymptomatic for decades. It is believed the condition can begin as early as the teens, taking many years to become noticeable. Once the constrictions become severe, symptoms occur, including cold hands or feet, cramping or pain in leg muscles, and reduced or absent arm or leg pulse.
Coronary artery disease is a form of ischemic vascular disease affecting the heart. The arteries that provide nutrients and oxygen to the heart muscle become so constricted the muscle is essentially starved. Angina indicates the presence of narrowed coronary arteries and insufficient oxygen supply. When part of the heart muscle is completely deprived of oxygen, myocardial infarction — a heart attack — occurs. If treatment isn’t quick, lasting heart damage is possible.
Most strokes are the result of the loss of blood supply to the brain. Clots that form from unstable plaque are a leading cause of stroke. Atherosclerosis is rarely localized, so patients who have suffered a heart attack or have peripheral artery disease are at an increased risk for a stroke. Vascular disease affecting the brain is suspected of contributing to the development of dementia. The long-term decline in nutrient and oxygen flow to the brain might cause increasing loss of brain function.
Effectively preventing ischemic vascular disease starts while people are young. Many lifestyle factors that are controllable play a role in the development of the disease. Regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and carefully managing diet all improve cardiovascular health. Avoiding saturated and trans fats while increasing fresh fruits and vegetables is believed to lower the risk for developing the disease. The use of tobacco constricts the arteries, so smokers are advised to start a smoking cessation program.
My mother-in-law was a heavy smoker for decades, and she eventually developed plaque in her carotid artery. Because the plaque build-up was on both sides of a main arterial branch, it was essentially inoperable. She did suffer several strokes, even after she stopped smoking. Ischemic vascular disease can be a silent killer.
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