Low income and lower education levels are associated with an increased risk for peripheral artery disease in U.S. adults, according to a new study in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

PAD is a narrowing of the peripheral arteries to the stomach, arms, head and most commonly in the arteries of the legs. It affects about 8.5 million Americans aged 40 years or above.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital analyzed data on more than 6,700 people included in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1999-2004.

Almost 6 percent had PAD.  People in the lowest socioeconomic categories were more than twice as likely as those in the highest categories to have the condition.

“Socioeconomic inequalities have a significant impact on cardiovascular disease,” said Mark Creager, senior author of the study and AHA president-elect. “This research highlights the need to focus on education and advocacy efforts for these at-risk populations in lower socioeconomic strata.”

PAD affects as many as one in five Americans ages 65 and older, but often goes undetected because it doesn’t always have symptoms. When PAD symptoms do show, they are vague: pain, cramping or tiredness in the legs after walking or climbing stairs.

People often wrongly self-diagnose, blaming arthritis or aging. The easiest way to diagnose PAD is with ankle-brachial index, a painless exam that compares the blood pressure in your ankle to the blood pressure in your arms to determine how well your blood is flowing. This inexpensive test takes only a few minutes and can be performed by a healthcare professional as part of a routine exam.

Risk factors for PAD include: smoking, obesity, diabetes, physical inactivity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

The most effective treatment for PAD is regular physical activity, usually under the supervision of a doctor. People with PAD are at a much greater risk for heart attack or stroke, and left untreated, it can lead to gangrene and amputation.

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