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Heart Disease, Stroke and Peripheral Artery Disease: What’s the Link?

Inside your body, a similar problem can strike in different areas. Heart disease affects your heart. Stroke affects your brain. And peripheral artery disease (PAD) usually affects your legs and might affect your arms and your internal organs.

“The common thread between heart disease, stroke and PAD is a disease called atherosclerosis,” said Brian Henry, MD, a Banner Health cardiologist with the CardioVascular Institute of North Colorado. “Most people think of these conditions as separate diseases, when in fact they are the same disease, just occurring in a different part of the body.”

Here’s what happens. Atherosclerosis affects your arteries, which are the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. With atherosclerosis, fatty material builds up on the inner wall of the arteries. These areas of atherosclerosis, called plaques, start out as fatty streaks and get bigger over time as more fatty material piles on. If they get big enough, they can slow down your blood flow.

You can develop symptoms depending on what part of your body isn’t getting enough blood flow. “The classic example is a patient with heart disease developing chest pain, but any organ can be affected,” Dr. Henry said.

And sometimes, a plaque will become unstable and rupture. When that happens, your body forms a blood clot on the ruptured plaque. This clot can grow to completely block the artery so blood can’t flow. The parts of your body that are downstream from the blockage become starved of oxygen and start to die. “The classic example of a plaque rupture is a heart attack,” Dr. Henry said.

What’s different about heart disease, stroke and PAD?

The main difference in these three conditions is where they strike:

  • Heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease, involves atherosclerosis of the arteries surrounding the heart that supply blood to the heart muscle.
  • PAD involves atherosclerosis of the peripheral arteries of the body—the arteries that supply blood to our arms, legs, internal abdominal organs and brain.
  • A stroke occurs when a blocked artery reduces blood flow to part of the brain. “A stroke can be caused by atherosclerosis, or plaque rupture. Not all strokes are caused by atherosclerosis, but many are. A stroke can also be caused by a blood clot that starts in one part of the body, breaks loose, travels to the brain and gets stuck in an artery,” Dr. Henry said.

How can I reduce my risk of heart disease, stroke, and PAD?

There are a few risk factors outside your control. As you get older your risk for these conditions increases. And, if you have a family history, you’re more likely to develop heart disease, stroke and PAD.

However, there are a lot of risk factors that are within your control—abnormal cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, and inflammatory conditions and diseases. “Adopting a healthy lifestyle and eating habits are very important in reducing your risk for atherosclerosis,” Dr. Henry said. “Smoking is probably the worst thing you can possibly do for your body, and smokers are very prone to developing complications of atherosclerosis.”

Atherosclerosis is not just a problem you can worry about when you get older. It develops over many decades, and fatty streaks can begin to form in adolescence. If you develop problems with cholesterol, diabetes, or high blood pressure, you risk speeding up the process of atherosclerosis.

Your doctor can evaluate your risk for these conditions by checking for abnormal cholesterol levels, signs of diabetes and high blood pressure. If you’re at high risk, your doctor might recommend medical imaging studies to evaluate your arteries for signs of atherosclerosis.

The good news is that any lifestyle changes you make or medications you take to address atherosclerosis will help throughout your body. So, with them, you can reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke and PAD.

“Atherosclerosis is the major underlying cause of most deaths worldwide,” Dr. Henry said. “But it is actually quite straightforward to prevent and manage. Most deaths and health complications from atherosclerosis can be avoided or significantly delayed.” Here’s how:

  • Focus on a healthy lifestyle with proper diet and exercise
  • Schedule your routine health screenings
  • Take medications if necessary

Check out Banner Health’s online health risk assessment questionnaires to help you evaluate your risk for heart disease, stroke and PAD. To connect with a health care provider who can help you reduce your odds of developing these conditions, visit bannerhealth.com.

These articles can help you learn more about the health conditions that are connected to atherosclerosis:

Heart Health Neurosciences Cholesterol