WEDNESDAY, Feb. 15 (HealthDay News) -- Even though it increases the risk of heart attack or stroke, peripheral artery disease is often unrecognized and untreated in women, according to an American Heart Association scientific statement released Wednesday.

Peripheral artery disease is a circulatory disorder caused by a buildup of fat and other materials in the blood vessels outside the heart, usually in the legs, feet and arms. If untreated, it can increase heart attack and stroke risk, severely limit walking ability, and cause tissue death that leads to limb amputation.

Because women with peripheral artery disease have a twofold to threefold increased risk of stroke or heart attack, health care providers should educate and test women at risk for peripheral artery disease, the statement advised. It also called for more female-focused research into the disease.

There are too few women enrolled in studies to provide a clear understanding of how the disease progresses, or to accurately determine the incidence and prevalence of peripheral artery disease in women, according to the statement authors.

More studies of peripheral artery disease specifically in women are needed, and results from previous studies should be pooled to obtain an adequate sample size of women, they recommended.

The authors also called for research to help determine how gender may affect the rate of development of peripheral artery disease, response to medications, and potential benefits of vessel-opening procedures.

All heart-health promotion campaigns should provide specific education about peripheral artery disease screening and treatment in women, the authors added.

The statement is published Feb. 15 in the journal Circulation.

Peripheral artery disease affects about 8 million people in the United States, with nearly equal prevalence among women and men.

"The rate of deaths and the health care costs associated with [peripheral artery disease] are at least comparable to those of heart disease and stroke," statement lead author Dr. Alan Hirsch, a professor of medicine, epidemiology and community health at the Lillehei Heart Institute at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis, said in a news release from the American Heart Association.

"Women, in particular, suffer an immense burden from peripheral artery disease, yet current data demonstrate most women still remain unaware of their risk," Hirsch added.

More information

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about peripheral artery disease.