Every year about 15,000 people in the U.S. die from an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA). Most deaths occur after the aneurysm bursts or splits open. But if an AAA is found in time, doctors can often successfully treat them with medicines or surgery.
Here’s what you should know about AAAs.
Q: What is an AAA?
A: An aneurysm is a bulge that forms in a weakened area of an artery.
The aorta is the largest blood vessel (artery) in your body, running from the heart down through your chest and abdomen.
So an AAA is a bulge in the part of the aorta that runs through your abdomen. If the bulge expands to the point of breaking through one or more layers of the artery’s wall, it can become a fatal bleed.
Q: Who’s at risk for an AAA?
A: You’re more likely to have an AAA if you:
- Are male.
- Are 65 or older.
- Have a history of smoking.
- Have a family history of aortic aneurysms.
- Have a history of aneurysms in the arteries of your legs.
- Have high blood pressure or other conditions that can weaken arterial walls.
Q: How can you tell if you have an AAA?
A: AAAs often don’t cause signs or symptoms, even when they’re growing. Sometimes they are found during routine physical exams or tests that are looking for something else. But if you’re at risk for an AAA, you can be screened, which is usually done using ultrasound.
Medicare pays for a one-time AAA ultrasound if you:
- Have a family history of abdominal aortic aneurysms.
- Are a man age 65 to 75 who has smoked at least 100 cigarettes in your lifetime.
Talk with your doctor about screening if you’re concerned about your risk.
Q: How is an AAA treated?
A: It usually depends on its size.
For example, an aneurysm of less than 5 centimeters (about 2 inches) may not need treatment at all. Instead your doctor might keep an eye on its growth with follow-up ultrasounds.
You also might be given medicines—for high blood pressure, for example—to reduce the risk of a rupture.
Surgery may be needed for an aneurysm that is larger than 5.5 centimeters or is growing fast.
Sources: National Institutes of Health; Society of Interventional Radiology