Heart Disease and Its Close Relatives [return to the list of articles]

Many people suffer from heart disease in the United States. Many factors play a role in the development of blockages in the heart's arteries. The same factors that can lead to a heart attack play a role in two other processes: peripheral vascular disease and carotid artery stenosis.

The main causes of heart disease are smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and family history. Each one of these causes of heart disease also increases your risk of developing the other two diseases, which are closely related to heart disease.

Peripheral vascular disease is blockages in the arteries of the hips and legs. When these arteries become blocked, one can experience pain in the legs with exertion. This pain is called claudication and is similar to angina - heart pain. Pain in the legs while walking results from not enough blood flow to the leg muscles.

Blockages in the carotid arteries can limit the amount of blood flow to the brain. Unlike the heart and legs, blockages in the carotid arteries do not cause pain in the head or brain. These blockages can cause strokes. Sometimes the stroke is mild and resolves after a short period of time (TIA); other times, the stroke can be severe and cause paralysis or death.

Just as your doctor screens your heart for blockages, using cardiograms (EKG's), stress tests or catheterizations, similar tests are done to screen for blockages in the arteries or the legs or carotid arteries. These tests are called Dopplers or ultrasounds and can help determine if there is a serious blockage or narrowing in the leg or carotid arteries.

Anyone who has heart disease, whether it is angina, heart attack, or heart failure, should be screened by their doctor for these closely related problems. When screening is being done, be sure it is by a nationally accredited vascular laboratory and that the study is interpreted by a physician who is familiar with these disease processes.