An abdominal aortic aneurysm 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. Nearly 80 percent of AAAs that rupture are fatal, but the good news is that more than nine out of 10 detected early are treatable.
Around 200,000 people are diagnosed with AAAs each year, but estimates suggest another 2 million people may have it but not realize it. The factors that can put you at increased risk are:
Because AAAs usually start small and enlarge slowly, they rarely show any symptoms, making them difficult to detect. However, large AAAs can sometimes cause a throbbing or pulsation in the abdomen or cause a deep pain in your lower back or side.
The best way to detect an AAA is to get a simple, painless, 10-minute ultrasound screening. All men over age 65 that have ever smoked and anyone over 60 with a first-degree relative (father, mother or sibling) who has had an AAA should talk to their doctor about getting screened.
Most health insurance plans cover AAA screenings, as does Medicare to beneficiaries with a family history of AAAs and to men between the ages of 65 and 75 who have smoked at least 100 cigarettes during their life.
If an AAA is detected during screening, how it’s treated will depend on its size, 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. If it is large or enlarging rapidly, you’ll probably need surgery.
While some risk factors like age, gender, race and family history are uncontrollable, there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself. If you smoke, you need to quit — see SmokeFree.gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for help.
You also need to keep tabs on your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and if they are high you need to take steps to lower them through diet, exercise and, if necessary, medication.