Vascular Screening: A Proactive Measure for Improved Health

 Vascular Screening

Take control of your health

It’s recommended that people of any age be proactive in managing their health, but as we age, this importance becomes magnified. If you are over age 50, one way to be proactive with managing your health is to talk to your care provider about the benefits of vascular screening.

One of the leading causes of death in the U.S. is vascular disease, yet it is generally asymptomatic, meaning you may not know it’s an issue until a catastrophic event such as an aneurysm rupture or stroke occurs. Unfortunately, millions of people remain unaware of their risk for stroke or death from vascular disorders, though preventive screening is available.

Screenings are painless procedures. Using ultrasound technology, a 10-minute screening can reveal vascular health issues that may have otherwise gone unnoticed, and help prevent strokes, ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysms, and peripheral arterial disease (PAD).

Who should consider vascular screening

If you belong to an at-risk category for vascular disease, you should talk to your care provider about whether you should have vascular screening performed. You should consider vascular screening if you have any of the following risk factors:

  • Age 50 or older
  • Smoker or tobacco user
  • Heart disease 
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • High cholesterol 
  • Diabetes 
  • Obesity
  • Family history for strokes, abdominal aortic disease, or heart disease

If you belong to an at-risk category, most insurances will cover screening with a care provider’s referral.

Why be screened

Carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease (PAD), and an abdominal aortic aneurysm are often asymptomatic and, therefore, go untreated. Untreated vascular disease poses a risk for a host of health problems. For instance, stroke due to carotid artery disease is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., but is largely preventable through screening. Other complications from vascular disease such as abdominal aortic aneurysms and peripheral arterial disease (PAD) can prove catastrophic to your overall health. Early detection through screening can head off a life-threatening ruptured aorta or possible leg amputation.

Stroke is responsible for over 130,000 deaths annually in the U.S., according to the CDC. That averages out to about one death due to stroke every four minutes. Strokes are largely caused by plaque build-up in the carotid arteries that becomes dislodged and blocks blood flow and the delivery of necessary oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Screening can detect plaque build-up in the carotid and measures can be taken to head-off a stroke before it occurs.

According to the Society for Vascular Surgery, one in 20 Americans over age 50 has PAD. Those with PAD are at five times the risk of a cardiovascular ischemic event and two-three times the risk of death due to such an event than those without PAD. Untreated PAD can also impair circulation to the legs, leading to a reduced ability to walk and possibly even amputation in severe cases. Simple screening can identify those with asymptomatic PAD and measures can be taken to stop disease progression.

Your probability of suffering from an abdominal aortic aneurysm are relatively low, but increase with certain risk factors, including being over 50, male gender, Caucasian, tobacco use, and family history of aneurysms, high cholesterol, and hypertension. If you belong to one or more of these at-risk categories, screening can detect an aneurysm before it ruptures causing serious health complications, including death.

Types of screening

Screening for vascular disease is performed through painless ultrasound, consisting of three non-invasive procedures that provide care providers with a snapshot of your major arteries. Through this snapshot, it can be determined whether you have vascular disease and to what degree so that a treatment plan can be devised.

A carotid ultrasound measures blockages in the main arteries to the brain. This test is vital in determining your risk for stroke and highly recommended for long-time smokers and people who suffer from high blood pressure.

An aortic ultrasound measures the size of the aorta, the major artery that carries blood from the heart, through the abdomen and to the legs. This test is vital in diagnosing an abdominal aortic aneurysm; a bulging or ballooning of the aorta. If you are over age 65, a tobacco user, male gender, have high blood pressure, or have a family history of heart disease, this screening is recommended.

An ankle brachial index (ABI) screens for peripheral artery disease (PAD). PAD is a hardening or narrowing of the arteries in the legs due to plaque build-up. This test is useful for determining whether vascular disease exists in the legs and to what degree. If diagnosed, PAD can be managed in most cases with medication and a few simple lifestyle changes.

Do more than screening

Getting screened is the first step in ensuring vascular health, but if you really want to be proactive in managing your health, adopting a few lifestyle changes can make a big difference. These changes don’t have to be drastic, but they should be sustained.

One of the best things you can do to improve your vascular health is to quit smoking. Amazingly, roughly two hours after your last cigarette, your blood pressure returns close to normal; at about 24 hours your risk for coronary artery disease will already begin to reduce; and after about a month the cilia in your lungs will begin to repair, which will help you to breath better and better stave off lung infections.

Other lifestyle changes such as maintaining an USDA recommended balanced diet, regular exercise as simple as briskly walking for 30 minutes, three times a week, and avoiding a sedentary lifestyle can all improve your vascular health.

Through screening and lifestyle changes, you can be proactive in managing your vascular health and greatly increase your chances of living a long and healthy life.