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Systemic Effects of Heart Disease: How Coronary Artery Disease Affects the Entire Body

written by: danxtptrnrth • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 2/23/2011

Learn more about the effects of heart disease. How do the risk factors and complications increase a patient's likelihood of developing systemic problems?

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    About Coronary Artery Disease

    Coronary artery disease (CAD) is a condition affecting the blood vessels that supply the muscle of the heart with oxygenated blood. Also called coronary heart disease (CHD), it can lead to several serious medical complications. The disease is caused by the formation and growth of fatty plaques, a process called atherosclerosis, inside the arteries of the heart. As these plaques grow, the arteries become occluded and blood flow is diminished or stopped entirely.

    Many patients suffering from CAD are either older or obese, and several factors related to these increase likelihood of disease progression. Aside from developing complications affecting the heart itself, several effects of heart disease can increase problems in other parts of the body.

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    The Brain

    Perhaps one of the most dangerous and life-threatening effects of heart disease is a cerebrovascular accident (CVA), or stroke. These can occur as a result of CAD in a few different ways. Thrombotic strokes occur when a blood clot forms in an artery in the brain and blocks blood flow from the heart. Embolic strokes occur when a clot from another part of the body breaks off and becomes lodged in a smaller artery, blocking blood flow. These conditions cause what is called an ischemic stroke; this means that blood flow to the brain, and therefore, oxygen is blocked. The atherosclerotic plaques associated with heart disease increase the likelihood of these happening.

    Another type of stroke is hemorrhagic in nature. This occurs when the wall of a blood vessel in the brain bursts, allowing blood to leak into the brain, causing damage to the tissues. This condition is most often seen in patients with high blood pressure (hypertension), an often present precursor and risk factor of CAD.

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    Lungs

    A risk of developing clots in other parts of the body, as that which occurs in patients of CAD, is the development of a pulmonary embolism. If a blood clot breaks off in another part of the body, it can travel to and block arteries in the lungs. If not quickly treated, these are possibly fatal complications of atherosclerosis and associated heart disease. Many times these clots come from blood vessels in the leg or pelvis in a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

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    Aorta

    The large artery through which all blood must pass on its journey to the rest of the body is the aorta. In some patients, the layers of this artery balloon and weaken, in what is called an aneurysm. When the bulge becomes too large, the aorta may rupture (dissect) in either the chest (thoracic aortic dissection) or in the abdomen (abdominal aortic dissection). There are some congenital defects that increase a patient's susceptibility to aortic dissection, but most patients suffer from hypertension and atherosclerosis, the conditions seen in CAD cases.

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    Peripheral Vascular Disease

    Often manifesting in patients with heart disease, peripheral vascular disease (PVD) consists of several disorders of the the blood vessels outside the heart. Many of the causes of PVD are associated with the factors contributing to heart disease. As with CAD, PVD involves blood vessels, often in the arms and legs, becoming clogged with atherosclerotic plaques.

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    Liver

    Not as common as complications affecting the extremities, PVD may affect the blood vessels in the liver. This can cause several problems with the normal functioning of the liver or even a condition called acute liver failure. Thrombosis and ischemia can damage the tissues of the liver, which can have far-reaching implications in how your body deals with toxins, especially alcohol.

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    Kidneys

    As with CAD, one of the major risk factors in kidney failure and kidney disease is hypertension. Chronic high blood pressure damages the small blood vessels in the kidneys, which hinders their ability to filter blood wastes. Patients that develop chronic kidney disease or chronic renal insufficiency may suffer a stroke or heart attack, which are also possible results of heart disease.

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    References

    Mayo Clinic: Coronary Artery Disease

    Cleveland Clinic Center for Continuing Education: Coronary Artery Disease

    Tufts-New England Medical Center: Coronary Artery Disease

    PubMed Health: Coronary Heart Disease

    National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: What is Coronary Artery Disease?

    Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Heart Disease-Other Related Conditions

    American Heart Association: Conditions

    MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: Stroke

    Merck Manual Home Edition: Pulmonary Embolism

    Texas Heart Institute: Aneurysms and Dissections

    Mayo Clinic: Acute Liver Failure: Causes

    National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse: The Kidneys and How They Work