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New Study With Life Line Screening Data Finds Value in Screening Arteries for Plaque Build-up

Dave Warner - July 10, 2015
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Vascular disease in one place may mean vascular disease in another.

Study finds that screening the arteries in your legs can be valuable to understanding if you have potential blockages in other arteries that are directly related to stroke.

Specifically, new research by a team from New York and Duke Universities, working with Life Line Screening patient health data of 3.67 million records, spelled out a relationship between Peripheral Artery Disease, which you’ll feel mostly in your legs, and Carotid Artery Stenosis, which threatens your brain.

Put simply, according to researcher Dr. Jeffrey Berger, of New York University, if you have Peripheral Artery Disease in your legs you are more than three times as likely to have issues in your carotid artery too.

And that can be serious business, because a blockage in the carotid can cause a stroke, and that, can lead to permanent brain damage.[1]

“In this paper we showed that if you have Peripheral Artery Disease, or if you have atherosclerosis of blockages in your lower extremity arteries, you are much more likely to have significant blockages in your carotid artery,” Berger said.

The researchers analyzed the extensive data base of Life Line Screening to review the results of some 3.6 million cases.

“We’re pleased that we were able to contribute to such important work,” said Andrew Manganaro, MD, Chief Medical Officer of Life Line Screening.  “It is the kind of research that heightens awareness of a critical medical issue, and we are able to contribute while maintaining patient confidentiality.”

The study looked at a condition called atherosclerosis, which in simpler terms amounts to cholesterol and fat that cling to artery walls.[3]

How does that happen? Here are some risk factors, according to the study:

  • Growing older.
  • Smoking.
  • Diabetes.
  • Hypertension, which is persistent high blood pressure.[4]

The mean age of the 3.6 million cases in the analysis was 63, and 64 percent of them were women.

Some of them had symptoms of Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD), and some had PAD but didn’t know it. The analysis showed that whether they knew they had the condition, or they didn’t, they were more likely to have what is called Carotid Artery Stenosis, which amounts to a constriction or narrowing of the blood vessel leading to your brain.[5]

PAD, indeed, is a common disorder, and experts say that the “growing older” part of the risk factor means mostly over the age of 50, and mostly men.[6]

If you do have symptoms – and some do not – you could feel pain, aches, fatigue or a burning sensation in your feet, calves or thighs. That could happen when you walk or exercise, and could vanish after you rest.[7]

No Symptoms Is Not "No Problem"
Can you have a health condition and not even know it?

You bet you can. Researchers have a name for it, actually – asymptomatic.

That is to say, you could have a problem, but your body isn’t giving you a shout-out about it.

So, when it comes to peripheral artery disease, for instance, some of you may feel pain in your legs, or numbness. Other possible symptoms include skin on your legs that looks dark, or blue. A possible symptom for men is erectile dysfunction.

Or you may notice none of that, even though you may still have the condition, which is what doctors call asymptomatic.

Researcher Jeffrey S. Berger, M.D., of New York University School of Medicine, and an author of the paper, said a patient with no symptoms may be at higher risk for adverse events because they may not be adhering to appropriate lifestyle and medication therapies.

What to do?

There are some things you can do for yourself, like rest when you exercise, and quitting smoking.[8] And there are some things your doctor can do, like giving you medicine to control blood pressure, or to dilate your arteries, and others to control cholesterol.[9]

Surgery is an option too, although most cases can be helped without surgery.[10]

So, let’s say you take care of your PAD problem.

Does that mean you no longer have any worries about the rest of your arteries?

No, not according to the research paper by the NYU/Duke team.

“We have to remember that atherosclerosis or blockages in your artery, or plaque buildup in your artery, is not a local problem, it is a global problem,” Berger said.

He spelled out what that means for patients:

“I think why this is extraordinarily important for patients is because in the past people would have an intervention done – for example, they would have bypass surgery, they would have a stent placed, they would have any type of intervention to open up an artery – and patients would think they were cured.”

“Just because one area is fixed,” he said, “does not mean you are disease free.”

“If you have any type atherosclerosis or any type of blockage and you don’t optimize your lifestyle, if you don’t take the necessary medications, I think you are at significantly higher risk of having a heart attack, or stroke, or death,” he said.

In the case of the paper on which Berger worked, the issue was PAD leading to carotid artery stenosis, in essence an issue in your legs that somehow travels to the artery that feeds your brain.

The consequences of that can be dire.

Like stroke, for instance, which is caused when the blood flow is cut off to your brain.[11]

Fairly quickly after that, brain cells start to die, and can lead to vision and speech problems, or paralysis or even death.[12]

Like PAD, carotid issues may not have any symptoms. The first time you know you have a problem is when you have a stroke.[13]

 “I think what people can take away from this,” said Berger, “is that if you have a vascular disease in one location, you are much more likely to have a vascular disease in another location.”

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