WEDNESDAY, Dec. 21, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- New government research suggests that American blacks -- women in particular -- are especially susceptible to a clogging of the arteries in the legs, a potentially crippling condition.
The new findings add to a growing body of evidence that black Americans are just as vulnerable to heart disease as whites, said Dr. Elijah Saunders, a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland.
"We've gone from saying that minorities, especially blacks, did not have heart disease and vessel disease to the same extent as whites to saying not only is it as common, in some cases it may be more common," said Saunders.
Atherosclerosis -- hardening of the arteries -- occurs when fatty deposits shrink the arterial vessels. In the legs, the condition can lead to pain and difficulty moving.
"When you're walking or when you're running, you're calling on the legs to get more blood, and the blood can't get to the legs because there is this build-up of cholesterol and plaque in the arteries," Saunders explained.
In the worst cases, amputation may be necessary.
In the new study, researchers pored over the medical records over 15,000 black and white American adults. The records tracked the patients' health from 1987-1989.
Arterial leg disease was diagnosed in the patients if there were major discrepancies between the blood pressure in their arms and ankles, suggesting that less blood was freely flowing through their legs.
The study findings appear in the current issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Arterial leg disease was diagnosed in 4.4 percent of black women and 3.1 percent of black men. Rates were lower in whites: 3.2 percent of white women and 2.3 percent of white men had the condition.
Why are blacks at higher risk for this form of atherosclerosis than whites? The research suggests that some of the conditions that contribute to the disease -- including high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and cigarette smoking -- are more common in blacks.
"Because minorities aren't controlling these risk factors, they're having more of these problems," Saunders said.
The higher level of the disease in women is harder to understand, but it may reflect a problem with how the blood-pressure tests are interpreted, said study author Dr. Zhi-Jie Zheng, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For more about arterial leg disease, head to the Peripheral Arterial Disease Coalition.