What is Vascular Disease? - Types, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Hilary North

Hilary is a biomedical researcher with a PhD in neuroscience.

Learn what causes vascular disease, some different types of vascular disease, the risk factors for its onset and clinical options for diagnosis and treatment.

What is Vascular Disease?

Vascular disease, also called atherosclerosis, is a common affliction of the blood vessels, specifically the arteries, in the circulatory system. The purpose of arteries is to pump blood from the lungs, where it is oxygenated (filled with oxygen), to all of the organs throughout the body, where the oxygen is used to keep cells alive. During vascular disease, the walls of the arteries have grown thicker, encroaching on the space inside the artery. When this happens, the blood inside the arteries has less space through which to flow and is circulated at a slower rate.

The result is that organs and cells in the body do not receive enough oxygen from the blood, and a variety of symptoms, such as cramping, numbness, weakness and coldness, ensue. In extreme cases, peripheral organs and tissue begin to die or a portion of the thickened blood vessel wall breaks off into the blood stream and travels to the brain or heart where it causes a blockage called a stroke or heart attack, respectively.

Types of Vascular Disease

Vascular disease and plaque buildup can occur in different places in the body. Here are some of the most common types of vascular disease:

  • Peripheral Artery Disease is the buildup of plaque in the peripheral arteries.
  • Renal Artery Disease is the buildup of plaque in the arteries that bring blood to the kidneys.
  • Angina is a blockage in coronary (heart) arteries that causes chest pain.
  • Claudication is caused by a blockage in arteries supplying the legs.
  • Buerger's Disease affects smaller blood vessels to supply fingers and toes.

Causes of Vascular Disease

A number of factors can contribute to the thickening of arterial walls. Inflammatory stimuli, such as LDL (the 'bad' cholesterol your doctor keeps warning you about) or various pathogens, irritate the endothelial cells that line the walls of the artery. This irritation causes the endothelial cells to recruit the immune system, and a variety of immune cells and molecules respond to the site of the irritation. These other cells, as well as cholesterol and fat, pile up inside the blood vessel wall in a paste known as plaque. The plaque encroaches upon the blood flow within the artery, causing vascular disease.

Risk Factors for Vascular Disease

There are several risk factors for vascular disease, some modifiable and others non-modifiable. Modifiable factors (factors that an individual can control) include smoking, physical inactivity, elevated blood sugar, and high cholesterol in the diet. Non-modifiable risk factors include age (the older the individual, the more time there has been for plaque to accumulate) and family history. The prevalence of vascular disease in an individual's family may suggest various undetected or unidentified risk factors for vascular disease are also present in the individual.

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