June 2, 2020

Has a relative had an abdominal aortic aneurysm? You could be at risk of a diagnosis, too

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Unfortunately, aneurysms can run in the family. But you’ve got options to protect yourself from an abdominal aortic aneurysm diagnosis.

The aorta is your largest blood vessel. It leads away from your heart down through the center of your abdomen and supplies blood to the rest of your body. An abdominal aortic aneurysm is a degeneration of the aorta that causes it to bulge like a balloon. If an abdominal aortic aneurysm swells too much, it can burst and create internal bleeding, which can be fatal. Although a family history is a risk factor for developing one, a major lifestyle choice is a more significant concern.

“No matter how you dial the genetics, there’s another risk factor involved, and that’s smoking,” said Thomas Naslund, M.D., chief of the Division of Vascular Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “I think an evolving, more modern thought about abdominal aortic aneurysm is there’s a genetic link, but it’s triggered by smoking.”

Whether or not you’ve got a family history, read on for tips on why you could be at risk, and what you can do to protect yourself from an abdominal aortic aneurysm diagnosis.

Smoking’s effects on abdominal aortic aneurysm

“If you had a parent who had an abdominal aortic aneurysm, who has a smoking history,” Naslund explained, “but they didn’t smoke in the home, and you haven’t been exposed, you probably are not going to have a meaningful risk of ever developing one.”

Living in a home with exposure to secondhand smoke, however, constitutes a risk factor. “We do not think a large experience of smoke is necessary to be able to trigger the propensity for an aneurysm,” he said. That’s why it’s crucial never to smoke around your children or allow others to do so, and if you’re a nonsmoker to avoid any secondhand smoke exposure.”

Naslund said that even childhood experimental smoking increases an individual’s risk of an abdominal aortic aneurysm diagnosis.

“You don’t get a free pass just because you smoked when you were in sixth grade and you quit,” he explains.

But if you are a current smoker, quitting now can be a huge benefit to your health and mitigate the risk for developing chronic or life-threatening conditions. “Take the leap now,” Naslund encouraged. “So many people will stop when they have these profound illnesses, but if they would just take the leap now, they wouldn’t have these profound illnesses.”

How abdominal aortic aneurysm affects blood pressure

In addition to quitting smoking and eliminating exposure to secondhand smoke, Naslund recommends that people check their blood pressure regularly, regardless of whether they are at an increased risk for abdominal aortic aneurysm.

“High blood pressure provides our populace massive misery through atherosclerosis, stroke, kidney failure and heart disease,” Naslund said. “It will ravage the body over time. And controlling it can really provide longitudinally much-improved health.”

Smoking and high blood pressure are huge risk factors for developing atherosclerosis, a hardening or narrowing of the arteries. Naslund says this disease links to abdominal aortic aneurysm.

Screening for abdominal aortic aneurysm

Most people who have it will not know, because the condition generally doesn’t present with any symptoms. “It will be silent in virtually every case,” Naslund said. “When abdominal aortic aneurysm is symptomatic, there is usually risk of rupture, and they’re typically large aneurysms.”

That’s why it’s essential to keep your doctor informed about any history of smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke as well as any family history of abdominal aortic aneurysm. Such history can lead your physician to consider the risk.

Naslund suggests asking if your physician has any concerns about your vascular health. Your doctor can then determine the necessity for any screenings. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that men age 65 to 75 who have ever smoked receive a one-time screening. Medicare will cover testing if you’re at risk because of family history or smoking history.

If you do have abdominal aortic aneurysm, your physician will likely refer you to a vascular surgeon. Depending on size and symptoms, some may need repairing. In other cases, the vascular surgeon would recommend monitoring and follow-up.

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If you are seeking expert care for a heart condition, the dedicated specialists at Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute can provide you with the personalized treatment you need. Our team works together to give you the best possible care, so you can continue to live an active, healthy life. Our multiple locations mean that you are always close to advanced heart care. For an appointment, call 615-322-2318.