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May 2006 Issue

A patient undergoes a vascular screening.
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Trio of Simple Tests Can Detect Vascular Disease Earlier

By Amanda Harper
Published May 2006

If you're over age 60, UC vascular health experts say making time for three simple screening tests just might save your life.

"Most people don't understand how their vascular health can affect the body," explains Amy Reed, MD, a vascular surgeon and associate professor of surgery. "People know the risks associated with blockages in heart vessels, but the reality is that blockages in the vessels leading to your brain and legs can be just as limb-threatening."

The human vascular system is a complex arrangement of vessels that carry blood to specific parts of the body. Arteries, which carry oxygen-rich blood away from the heart, distribute blood throughout the body. Veins, smaller vessels, return blood to the heart.

Vascular problems occur when fat and cholesterol (plaque) build up on the artery walls. As plaque increases, the arteries harden and become narrow. Gradually, blood flow decreases and parts of the body are deprived of the oxygen they need to function properly.

"That's why it's absolutely critical that you know your risk, get screened and take steps to improve your vascular health," adds Dr. Reed. "Detecting vascular disease early can help prevent serious problems—like stroke or crippling leg painŃin the future.'

Three of the most common non-cardiac vascular diseases—abdominal aortic aneurysms, carotid artery disease and peripheral arterial disease—can be found through screening tests and then treated with minimally invasive surgery techniques, says Dr. Reed.

According to the American Vascular Association, more than 15,000 Americans die of ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysms each year. People with peripheral arterial disease are three times more likely than the average person to die of heart attack or stroke.

"Your risk for vascular disease goes up with age and familial history, so every person over age 60 who has a family history of vascular disease should get screened," explains Dr. Reed. "Diabetics and people who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or have ever smoked are also at elevated risk."

Vascular screening tests, which take about 10 to 15 minutes combined, include a carotid artery ultrasound to detect blockages in the vessels that feed blood to the brain, an abdominal aorta ultrasound to identify aneurysms or "bulges" that indicate vessel weakness, and an ankle blood pressure test to detect blockages in the legs.

"All the tests are noninvasive, so you'll experience no pain or discomfort," says Dr. Reed. "But you'll leave armed with information about your vascular health."

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