Abdominal aortic aneurysms: A silent killer you can prevent

SAVVY SENIOR

Special to the HeraldAugust 24, 2010 

Can you tell me about abdominal aortic aneurysms? My father died from one about nine years ago at the age of 76, and I’m wondering how that may increase my risk. What can you tell me?

— Feeling Fine

While you don’t hear much about them, abdominal aortic aneurysms are extremely dangerous and the third leading cause of death in men older than 60. They also tend to run in families, so having had a parent with this condition makes you much more vulnerable yourself. Here’s what you should know.

Silent killer

An abdominal aortic aneurysm (or AAA) is a weak area in the lower portion of the aorta, which is the major artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. As blood flows through the aorta, the weak area bulges like a balloon and can burst if it gets too big, causing life-threatening internal bleeding. In fact, nearly 80 percent of AAA’s that rupture are fatal, but the good news is that more than nine out of 10 that are detected through screenings are treatable.

The problem with AAA’s is that — because they usually start small and enlarge slowly — they rarely show any symptoms. That is why screening is crucial. The most common symptoms, however, (with enlarged AAA’s) may be a throbbing, or pulsation in the abdomen, or sometimes abdominal or lower back pain occurs.

Who’s at risk?

Around 200,000 people are diagnosed with AAA each year, but studies suggest that 1 in 20 Americans age 60 and older (more than 2 million people) may have an AAA and not even know it. Here are the factors that can boost your risks:

n Age: Your risk of getting an AAA increases significantly after age 60 in men, and after age 70 in women.

n Gender: AAA’s are five to 10 times more common in men than in women.

n Family history: Having a parent or sibling who has had an AAA can increase your risk to around one in four.

n Smoking: Ninety percent of people with AAA’s smoke or have smoked. This is the number one risk factor and one you can avoid.

n Health factors: Atherosclerosis also known as hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure (140/90 or higher) and high cholesterol levels also increase your risk.

Get screened

The best way to detect an AAA is to get a simple, painless, 10-minute ultrasound screening test. All men over age 65 that have ever smoked, and anyone over 65 that have a first-degree relative (father, mother or sibling) who has had an AAA should be tested. Talk to your doctor about your risks and getting screened.

You should also know that Medicare covers a one-time, free AAA screening to new enrollees. The screening, however, needs to be done within the first 12 months you have Medicare Part B. Men who have smoked at least 100 cigarettes during their life, and men and women with a family history of AAA qualify for the screening.

Treatment

The treatment for an AAA will depend on the size of the aneurysm, its rate of growth and your general health.

If caught in the early stages when the aneurysm is small, it can be monitored and treated with medication. However, if it is large or enlarging rapidly, you’ll probably need surgery.

To learn more about AAA visit www.findtheAAAnswers.org. Also, check out Legs For Life (legsforlife.org, 800-488-7284), a national program that offers free AAA screenings in September in hundreds of locations nationwide, and the Society for Vascular Surgery (vascularweb.org) which provides a listing on their website of two-dozen health care facilities that provide free AAA screenings.

Life Line Screening is another convenient resource to check into. This is a private company that travels all over the country offering AAA screenings for $50 per test.

To find an upcoming screening in your area visit lifelinescreening.com or call (800) 449-2350.

Jim Miller, a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book, can be reached at Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org.

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