Abdominal aortic aneurysm.
The term is certainly a mouthful. It also describes a potentially deadly
health condition that generally doesn’t cause any symptoms. But
how do you know if you have an abdominal aortic aneurysm – an AAA
– if you don’t have any symptoms? A simple, painless ultrasound
screening that takes only about 15 minutes could answer that question
and possibly save your life or the life of a loved one.
For more than a decade, Washington Hospital -- with the generous support
of Fremont Bank – has provided annual free screenings to encourage
early diagnosis and treatment of AAA. This year’s screening event,
which is co-sponsored by the imaging services company Mint Medical, is
scheduled for Saturday, November 7, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The screenings
will be conducted in the Conrad E. Anderson, MD, Auditorium in the Washington
West Building located at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont.
What is an abdominal aortic aneurysm?
An AAA is a “silent killer” that affects the aorta, the largest
and most important artery in the body. The aorta runs from the heart through
the center of the chest and abdomen before dividing into two branches
called the iliac arteries, which carry blood into each leg. As blood flows
through the abdominal aorta, it can push and expand the artery wall.
“If the abdominal aorta weakens, the artery will begin to expand
over time,” explains board-certified cardiologist Dr. Ash Jain.
“An AAA is created when a bulge develops in the abdominal aorta,
between the breast bone and the belly button. If the weakening and expansion
of the abdominal aorta goes beyond a certain point, there’s a high
risk of rupturing the aorta. Because the aorta is the main source of blood
supply to the body, a ruptured AAA can cause life-threatening bleeding,
and it frequently is impossible to save the patient once a rupture has
Dr. Jain and vascular surgeon Dr. John Thomas Mehigan serve as co-medical
directors of Washington Hospital’s Vascular Services Program. Dr.
Jain also serves as medical director of the Washington Hospital Stroke
Program, and Dr. Mehigan is the chief of Vascular Surgery at Washington
Hospital. Both physicians will conduct AAA screenings at the event on
November 7. The screenings use ultrasound technology that detects and
accurately measures the size of an aneurysm to determine if treatment
is needed. After the ultrasound testing is performed, patients have the
opportunity to speak with one of the doctors, who will explain the screening results.
“An AAA is difficult to feel by routine examination because the aorta
is in a hard-to-reach position,” says Dr. Mehigan. “Consequently,
a majority of these potentially fatal aneurysms are found by accident.
Obviously, the best time to find an AAA is before it ruptures, rather
than by accident, and that’s why we conduct these screenings every
year. If we can find these aneurysms when they are small, we can work
to control the patients’ risk factors for having the aneurysms increase
in size or rupture.”
Risk Factors for AAA
The Society for Vascular Surgery estimates that as many as 1 million Americans
are living with an undiagnosed AAA. Each year, nearly 200,000 AAAs are
diagnosed, and 15,000 people die from one. Although the exact cause of
AAAs is unknown, a number of risk factors may play a role, including:
- Family history of AAA
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Smoking and other forms of tobacco use
- Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
- Heart disease
The Society for Vascular surgery notes that AAAs occur most often in people
age 60 and older. Men develop AAAs more often than women do, but women
who have an AAA have a higher risk of rupture than men.
“If an AAA is diagnosed before it is larger than 5 cm, it often can
be treated effectively with lifestyle changes and medications, along with
monitoring the aneurysm with an ultrasound test every year,” Dr.
Jain says. “For aneurysms larger than 5 cm, we would follow up with
a CT scan to obtain more detailed images and then aggressively treat the
AAA by implanting stents to reinforce the weakened wall of the aorta.
Technology has improved tremendously over the past several years. Even
if a stent is required, the patient usually can go home the day after
Dr. Mehigan encourages anyone with risk factors for an AAA to register
for a free screening on November 7. “The only downside to the screening
is that screening participants must fast overnight and not have breakfast
until after they are screened,” he notes. “Then, after the
screening, you get a little snack and you’re out of there.”
If you have a family history of AAA or any of the risk factors for AAA
mentioned above – or if you have a family member who does –
call (800) 963-7070 to schedule a free abdominal aortic aneurysm screening
on November 7.
To ensure adequate staffing for this free screening event, pre-registration
is required; walk-in patients cannot be accepted. If you are unable to
be screened on November 7 and need help finding a physician who can discuss
your risks for AAA, visit www.whhs.com and click on “Find Your Physician.”
Medicare now pays for a one-time screening for patients over the age of 65.