The Importance of Vascular Health

What is Your Vascular System?

The vascular system is your body’s network of vessels, responsible for carrying blood, oxygen and fluid containing blood cells around the body. It is made up of three types of vessels: arteries, capillaries and veins.

Protecting the health of this network and keeping it running smoothly is important in order to avoid vascular disease that affects the arteries and veins and can result in damage to organs and body parts such as the heart, arms, legs and brain.


What is the Impact of Vascular Disease?

In most cases, when you have vascular disease, there will be a build-up of plaque in your arteries causing them to narrow and harden which limits the supply of blood and oxygen to parts of the body and can lead to serious events such as heart attack, amputation and stroke.

Vascular disease can take many forms, including coronary artery disease (CAD), when plaque builds up in the arteries supplying blood to the heart, and peripheral artery disease (PAD), when plaque builds up in the arteries supplying blood to the limbs.

Cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death globally[1]. Specifically, PAD affects 202 million people worldwide[2], and CAD leads to 8.8million deaths worldwide[3]. Despite having a critical impact on global health, vascular diseases are often not properly understood or recognised.

For this reason, it’s important that risk factors and symptoms are identified and addressed as soon as possible to help to reduce and protect against potential long term impact. Management of your vascular health should be consistently maintained as even with preventative treatment, plaque can still continue to build up.


Managing your Risk of Vascular Disease

Lifestyle factors such as an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, smoking and an above average consumption of alcohol can increase your chances of plaque build-up in the arteries which can lead to CAD, PAD and the associated risks of heart attack, amputation and stroke, should this plaque build-up block blood flow to the brain.

Genetics also play a role in vascular disease. For example, if one of your parents carries a gene that carries a trait of vascular disease, there is a chance you could inherit it and pass it on to your children[4].

With the above in mind, it is important that we encourage ourselves, friends and family to lead a healthier lifestyle to reduce the risk of plaque build-up that could lead to CAD and PAD.

Some behaviour changes can include:

  • Quit smoking[5]; there are multiple resources available, from helplines to nicotine patches or motivating books and recordings
  • Limit your alcohol intake[6]; limit the number of units and days you drink during the week. The recommended range is no more than 14 units per week (250ml of 40% spirit) [7]
  • Avoid foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt[8]; include more fibre in your diet by eating wholegrain breakfast cereals, whole-wheat pasta or fruits such as berries and oranges. Cut out high fat foods, for example, lamb, butter and cheese
  • Increase your physical exercise[9]; have a regular exercise regimen of at least 30 minutes, three – four times per week[*]
  • Take time out to relieve stress[10]; spend a minimum of 15 minutes per day doing an activity that brings you joy to avoid stress and ensure you get around eight hours of sleep a night
  • Get enough sleep[11]; while the amount of sleep a person needs varies with age, 8 hours is the standard recommendation


How is Vascular Disease Diagnosed?

Detecting a vascular disease can be difficult due to initial possible lack of symptoms, so it may take a heart attack or stroke for you to be made aware of damaging plaque build-up present in your arteries. However, there are some symptoms to be aware of that can help you detect any issues earlier[12].

People with coronary artery disease (CAD) may experience uncomfortable pressure, fullness or squeezing pain in the chest which may also be felt in the neck, jaw, shoulders, back or arm; breathlessness or unexplained sweating. Symptoms of peripheral artery disease (PAD) most commonly include leg pain, or cramping, also known as claudication.

Tests that assess your vascular health depend largely on what condition your doctor may initially feel you have[13]. You will likely be asked to collect information on your medical history and conduct a blood test[14]. CAD will be tested in a variety of different ways including an electrocardiogram (sensors attached to the skin to detect the electrical signals produced by your heart each time it beats), stress test (measuring blood flow to your heart muscle at rest and during stress), angiography (a scan that detects calcium deposits in your arteries) whereas PAD will be tested via a physical exam or ankle-brachial index (comparing blood pressure in your upper arms and ankles).

While they can’t be cured, vascular diseases can be managed. The current standard of treatment for both PAD and CAD is similar, including lifestyle changes, prescription medication and surgery.

Diagnosis can be a stressful time, no matter what the disease. Understanding the root cause of your condition can be an effective coping mechanism and encourage you to inspire others to take better care of their health.


Five facts on your vascular system

Vascular disease is one of the biggest causes of death
Cardiovascular disease accounts for 8.2million more deaths than cancer, globally.[15]

Approximately 85% of those who die of CAD are age 65 or older.
Coronary artery disease claims the lives of 236,468 females in the U.S annually compared with 43,800 lives from breast cancer and 60,600 from lung cancer.[16]

Children whose parents have vascular disease are at a greater risk of developing the disease themselves
While there are a number of risk factors, such as high cholesterol or blood pressure, that can be controlled or modified, chances of being diagnosed with a vascular disease are increased if it runs in your family[17]

Your blood vessels could circle the globe
Though small, your network of arteries, veins and capillaries is amazingly long. If they were laid out in a line they would measure more than 10,000km in length which means your vascular system could wrap around the world two and a half times [18] [19]

You can be diagnosed with CAD and PAD at the same time
CAD and PAD are both caused by a build-up of plaque in the arteries, which gets worse over time[20]. It’s important to be aware that if you have one vascular disease you are at a higher risk of having another[21].

[*]speak to a trainer at your local gym to get a personalised regimen that caters to your physical capability


How to cope with your diagnosis

Depending on the form of vascular disease you have been diagnosed with – it can mean there is a build-up of plaque in the walls of your arteries. As the plaque continues to build up, your arteries narrow, making it more difficult for blood to flow and creating a risk of heart attack, stroke or amputation.

A diagnosis of any disease can be a scary, shocking time. But please remember you are not alone.

Here are 5 things you could try post diagnosis:

  • Speak up. A problem shared is a problem halved. After you’ve been diagnosed, reach out to your family or friends so they can help emotionally guide you through your treatment.
  • Its ok to feel vulnerable. Reach out to others with your disease and start to build a personal support team. Know when you need to let go of some control and let others take care of you.
  • Join support groups. There’s no reason to cope with vascular disease on your own, accept that it may be difficult at times. There are a range of support networks you can be involved in including online or local community groups for those who have also been diagnosed or knows someone who has.
  • Find confidence. Initial diagnosis can instantly correlate with a feeling of depression[22], anger and fear. It’s important to process those feelings and then get past them. If you think that you or someone you know may be experiencing depression, don’t be afraid to seek professional guidance to help you manage.
  • Spread the word. As someone living with vascular disease, educate and build awareness for others to help them detect and recognise the key lifestyle and hereditary factors that lead to vascular disease. Encourage smokers to quit and push sedentary peers to incorporate more exercise into their daily routine.


[20] Peach G, et al. Diagnosis and management of PAD. BMJ 2012;345:e5208.
[21] Al Thani, et al. Polyvascular Disease in Patients Presenting with Acute Coronary Syndrome: Its Predictors and Outcomes. Sci Wor J. 2012 Jan.

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