Vascular Disease in Women
The vascular system circulates blood to every part of the body through blood vessels – arteries, veins, and capillaries. When these vessels become narrow or blocked, blood flow becomes restricted or stopped. This can lead to fatigue, pain, and inflammation. It also increases the risk of heart attacks, stroke, or severe and permanent limb damage.
The common perception is that serious vascular diseases like atherosclerosis only affect men. But women are also greatly impacted, and in ways we’re only just beginning to understand. And some vascular conditions like Fibromuscular Dysplasia (FMD) are far more common in women, but are not well known.
Atherosclerosis is sometimes called “hardening of the arteries.” It occurs when plaque (cholesterol, fat, and calcium) collects in the arteries. This causes them to narrow and stiffen, restricting or even cutting off blood flow, especially when combined with blood clots. Atherosclerosis affects women differently than men, and typically at a more advanced age. But it is the number one vascular disease affecting women, and can have serious implications for a woman’s cardiovascular health.
Fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD) is a rare condition that causes abnormal growth in the walls of arteries. This narrows the arteries and restricts healthy blood flow. The vast majority of people with FMD are women, and many do not have obvious symptoms. In fact, patients are often first diagnosed with FMD because an X-ray or diagnostic scan for an unrelated issue reveals the condition.
Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection
Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) occurs when a blood vessel in the heart tears. This can slow or block blood flow to the heart, and can result in a heart attack or other serious complications.
Women with SCAD often don’t always have common factors for heart disease, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, so its diagnosis is challenging. SCAD is most prevalent in women in their 40s and 50s.
Thrombophlebitis is the formation of a blood clot that blocks one or more veins, often in the legs. Two types of thrombophlebitis are:
- Superficial Thrombophlebitis - the blood clot is just below the surface of the skin, and can cause pain, inflammation, and discoloration.
- Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) - the clot forms deep inside a vein in the leg or pelvis. If this clot moves to the lung, it can block the flow of blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. This serious and potentially life-threatening blockage is called a pulmonary embolism.
Women are more likely than men to develop superficial thrombophlebitis. And women are most likely to develop DVT or suffer a pulmonary embolism during pregnancy, or when taking certain medications.
Vasospasm is a sudden contraction and narrowing of an artery. This reduces blood flow to the surrounding tissue, and can lead to damage and cell death from lack of oxygen.
Vasospasm can happen to any artery in the body, but is especially concerning in the heart and brain. Other areas commonly affected are the hands and feet, and the nipple of a woman during breastfeeding. In Raynaud’s Phenomenon, exposure to extreme cold can trigger vasospasm. Women are significantly more likely to develop Raynaud’s Phenomenon, and it is often associated with other diseases, like Lupus.
What You Can Do
While many factors like family history and age can play a part in determining your likelihood for developing vascular disease, it’s important to understand what you can do to reduce your risk. You can manage many of these factors with the help of a cardiologist, and by taking an active role in your overall health.