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African Americans at Increased Risk for Dangerous Artery Disease

Gwen WilliamsGwen Williams, a nurse and the executive director of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) Health Commission, was surprised to learn she had peripheral arterial disease (P.A.D.) — clogging of the arteries in the limbs — even though she had two P.A.D. risk factors, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

"I experienced pain in my legs while traveling and immediately went to the doctor," said Gwen. "I had never experienced symptoms until then, so I was taken aback to hear I had P.A.D." Gwen's P.A.D. is now being treated with prescription medicine and increased activity.

P.A.D., which affects 8-12 million Americans, is more common in African Americans than any other racial or ethnic group. This may be because some of the risk factors for P.A.D., such as diabetes and high blood pressure, are more common among African Americans. The risk for P.A.D. is also increased if you: smoke or used to smoke; have high blood cholesterol; or have a history of vascular disease, heart attack, or stroke.

A recent study found that only 1 in 4 people surveyed were aware of P.A.D., and that awareness was even lower among African Americans. Having P.A.D. raises the risk for having a heart attack, stroke, leg amputation, or even death.

To raise awareness and improve the health and care of people with P.A.D., the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) launched the Stay in Circulation: Take Steps to Learn About P.A.D. campaign in cooperation with the P.A.D. Coalition, an alliance of national organizations and professional societies.

"African Americans need to be aware of P.A.D. and take action to reduce risk," says Dr. Patrice Nickens, from the Division of Cardiovascular Diseases at NHLBI. "Timely detection and treatment are critical to improving their quality of life."

Not everyone with PAD has symptoms. When present, typical symptoms of P.A.D. include:

  1. Fatigue, heaviness, or cramping in the legs during activities that goes away with rest;
  2. Pain in legs and/or feet at rest;
  3. Sores or wounds on toes, feet, or legs that heal slowly, poorly, or not at all;
  4. A lower temperature in one leg compared to the other leg; and
  5. Poor nail growth and decreased hair growth on toes and legs.

A simple, painless test called an ankle-brachial index (ABI) can help diagnose P.A.D.

If you are over the age of 50 and think you are at risk for P.A.D., consult your health care provider. For more information, visit