DEAR SAVVY SENIOR: 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

 

DEAR FINE: While you don’t hear much about them, abdominal aortic aneurysms are extremely dangerous and the third leading cause of death in men over 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.

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 AAAs 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 AAAs 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 AAAs) 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 (over 2 million people) may have an AAA and not even know it. Here are the factors that can boost your risks:

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

Gender: AAAs are five to 10 times more common in men than in women.

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

Smoking: Ninety percent of people with AAAs smoke or have smoked. This is the No. 1 risk factor and one you can avoid.

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 who have ever smoked, and anyone over 65 who has 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 for 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.

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.

MORE INFORMATION

To learn more about AAA, visit 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.

The Society for Vascular Surgery (vascularweb.org) also provides a listing on its 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 around $50 per test. To find an upcoming screening in your area, visit lifelinescreening.com or call 800-449-2350.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org.