What is vascular calcification?

If your doctor tells you that you have vascular calcifications, you’re right to be concerned. Vascular calcifications are mineral deposits on the walls of your arteries and veins. These mineral deposits sometimes stick to fatty deposits, or plaques, that are already built up on the walls of a blood vessel.

Vascular calcifications are common but potentially serious. They can increase your risk of stroke and blood clots, according to Cardiovascular Research. It’s important to learn what causes calcification in the body and how to treat it.

Contact the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute or call 1-855-UPMC-HVI (876-2484) for screenings and appointments.

Calcifications can occur in the intimal (inside) or medial (middle layer) part of the blood vessel. Each location has different associated risks. Medial calcifications, for example, are most often associated with kidney disease, diabetes, hypertension, and advanced age. Intimal calcifications are associated with blocked arteries and blood clots.

When calcifications in the breast are found during a mammogram, doctors examine these closely as they can signal breast cancer.

In the body, calcification is actually part of the aging process. Calcifications accumulate in the vessels, heart, or valves as calcium travels through the bloodstream.

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Risk Factors and Complications of Vascular Calcification

Postmenopausal women with osteoporosis and people with type 1 or type  2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome are at a greater risk of developing vascular calcifications. However, they are more common in those with chronic kidney disease.

Long-term smoking and elevated LDL cholesterol levels are associated with an increase in the incidence of calcifications.

According to the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, vascular calcifications can raise the rise of:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Dementia
  • Renal insufficiency
  • Inadequate blood supply to arms and legs

You may not always notice symptoms of vascular calcification. If vascular calcification causes arteries to harden, the heart will have to work harder to pump blood. Eventually, you might develop symptoms of peripheral artery disease (PAD) or stroke. The most common PAD symptom is pain or cramping in your leg muscles when walking or climbing stairs. If plaque is dislodged, it can cause a stroke. Symptoms of a stroke include sudden weakness, confusion, or dizziness, along with vision and speech impairment.

Vascular Calcification Treatment and Prevention

Doctors treat plaque-clogged blood vessels in a variety of ways, including vascular surgery and medicine.

Lifestyle changes — quitting smoking, eating healthier foods, and starting to exercise — can decrease the chances of plaque and calcifications forming. If you take calcium supplements, your doctor can advise the proper dosage or if you should continue taking them.

Unfortunately, vascular calcification is common in those with chronic kidney disease and end-stage renal disease, especially when combined with risk factors such as smoking, advanced age, diabetes, and hypertension, according to a BioMed Research International study. For those patients, vascular calcification is thought to be irreversible.

Ask your doctor about your risk factors for vascular calcifications and whether you need some type of screening. Contact the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute or call 1-855-UPMC-HVI (876-2484) for screenings and appointments.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.