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Plaque in superficial femoral arteries indicates generalized atherosclerosis and vulnerability to coronary death: an autopsy study.

OBJECTIVES: Risk factors for atherosclerosis have limited ability to identify persons at high risk of coronary heart disease. Assessment of subclinical atherosclerosis in peripheral arteries might improve this limitation. We studied the relationship between atherosclerotic plaques in peripheral arteries, coronary plaques, and coronary death.

METHODS: Predefined segments from the left anterior descending coronary artery, the right coronary artery, bilateral carotid, and superficial femoral arteries (SFA) were obtained from 100 autopsies (20-82 years, 30 females, 27 coronary deaths). Based on microscopic examination of 4756 sections, the extension of atherosclerosis (plaque burden) and the largest plaque area in each segment were quantified.

RESULTS: Plaque burden in all arteries increased with age and was larger in coronary death (P < .05). SFA plaques occurred later than coronary and carotid plaques. When SFA plaque had developed, coronary plaque was also present. SFA plaque (odds ratio, 95% confidence interval: 7.07 [2.40-20.81]), but not carotid plaque, was significantly associated with coronary death, also after age and gender adjustment (21.25 [5.02-89.97]). The area under the receiver operating characteristic curves for the identification of coronary death individuals was 0.72 (95% confidence interval: 0.62-0.83) for coronary plaque, and 0.80 (0.72-0.89) for SFA plaque (age and gender adjusted).

CONCLUSIONS: Atherosclerosis develops slower in SFA compared with coronary and carotid arteries. In persons with plaque in the SFA, plaque is always present in the coronary arteries. In younger persons, the presence of SFA plaque indicates a generalized susceptibility to atherosclerosis and vulnerability to coronary death.

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