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Fit After 50: Vascular Disease Increases With Age

By Brandi Upton, M.D., Special to the Daily Republic

Vascular disease is more common than most people realize and it increases with age.

Peripheral vascular disease involves disease or disorders of the circulatory system outside of the heart or brain. Understanding it begins with understanding the function of arteries and veins in the human circulatory system.


Veins carry blood from tissues of the body to the heart. They are usually found closer beneath the skin and are less muscular than arteries and will collapse if blood flow stops. Arteries carry blood back away from heart to tissues in the body. They are located deeper within the body, are more muscular than veins, and would generally remain open even if blood flow stops because of their muscular structure.




Common disorders of this circulatory system include peripheral arterial disease and venous disease. How common? One in every 20 Americans has peripheral arterial disease and that includes 12 percent to 20 percent of people over age 60. It affects both men and women, although men are slightly more likely than women to have it.


With venous disease, by age 40, nearly 40 percent of women and 20 percent of men have significant leg vein problems. With those kinds of numbers it’s common to hear patients ask why it happens. The most common cause of peripheral arterial disease is atherosclerosis, a gradual process in which a fatty material builds up inside the arteries and reduces blood flow. Less common causes can include inflammation, injury to limbs, unusual anatomy of the muscles and ligaments or radiation. Common risk factors include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, being over age 50 and having a family history of peripheral arterial disease, heart disease or stroke.


With venous disease or chronic venous insufficiency, it occurs when valves in the leg veins are not working effectively, making it difficult for blood to return to the heart. Common symptoms of peripheral arterial disease include muscle pain or cramping, heaviness in the legs or arms that is triggered by activity such as walking but disappears after a few minutes of rest. It can include calf pain, numbness or weakness, buttock pain, coldness of the foot or leg, sores on toes or feet that won’t heal, hair loss or slow hair growth, and pain when resting, which may even disrupt sleep.


Common symptoms with venous disease can include aching or tiredness in the legs, restless, heaviness, pain or fatigue, varicose veins, clots, ankle, foot or leg swelling and skin changes including discoloration, scarring, hardening or thickened skin and ulceration.

Treatment for these disorders can vary, depending on the severity.


The key is not to ignore pain or just attribute the symptoms to aging. Talk to your doctor about any leg symptoms you may be having.


Brandi Newton, M.D., is a vascular surgeon with NorthBay Healthcare.

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