Are You at Risk for AAA—the Silent Killer?
If your circulatory system was like our state’s highways and byways, the aorta would be the New Jersey Turnpike.
The largest blood vessel in the body, the aorta runs from your heart through the center of your chest and abdomen. While built to last, its roadway can buckle and need emergency repair.
If the aorta’s wall develops a weak spot, it may bulge and swell like a balloon. This area is called an aneurysm. Like a balloon, the aneurysm can burst and cause life-threatening internal bleeding. Knowing what an abdominal aortic aneurysm is—and whether you’re at risk for it—can be a matter of life and death.
An aneurysm that grows slowly and quietly
An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA)—or “triple A,” as it’s called—often grows slowly and silently and isn’t detected until it ruptures.
Symptoms of a ruptured AAA include:
- Sudden, deep pain in the abdomen or back that may spread to the back, legs, pelvis, or buttocks
- Abnormal stiffness in your abdominal muscles
- Clammy or sweaty skin
- Low blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
If you experience any of these symptoms, get medical attention right away.
Are you at risk?
About 200,000 Americans are diagnosed with AAA each year, according to the Society for Vascular Surgery.
Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), chronic high blood pressure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), elevated cholesterol, peripheral vascular disease, and some types of inflammation can contribute to the weakening of the aorta artery walls and formation of AAA.
You also may have a higher risk if you:
- Have a family history of AAA
- Use tobacco products
- Are a white male
- Are 65 and older
- Are obese
- Have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes
- Have a connective tissue disorder
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends ultrasound screening for AAA in men ages 65 to 75 who have ever smoked.
Is there treatment?
AAAs are usually found when you're being examined for another medical condition. Your health care provider may confirm the diagnosis with an imaging test such as CT scan, ultrasound, or MRI.
Treatment of the aneurysm depends on its size, shape, and location. If it’s small and has a low risk of bursting, doctors will closely monitor it. If it’s larger, you’ll need surgery.
Surgical options include removing the aneurysm and replacing the missing section of aorta with a graft, or tube, made of synthetic material.
Another less-invasive option is to thread a catheter to the aorta and insert a stent graft that rests inside the aneurysm to keep it from expanding.
Focus on prevention
Only a small percentage of people survive a ruptured AAA, so prevention and screening are key. If you’re concerned about your risk, talk with your health care provider about screening and steps you can take to improve your vascular health.
Don’t be left on the side of the road. Work with a Virtua cardiologist to improve your heart health.
To make an appointment, call 888-847-8823.
Updated September 28, 2020