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Free Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm Screening Can Catch Silent Killer

October 05, 2010

Simple Five Minute Screening Could Save Your Life

As many as 15,000 people in the United States die each year, often arriving too late in the emergency room with a swollen, painful abdomen and suffering from shock due to a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA). Frighteningly, symptoms such as these, even in a person who might have otherwise seemed in good health, often occur suddenly and without warning.

The Society for Vascular Surgery estimates that as many as 1 million Americans are living with an undetected AAA; each year, nearly 200,000 are diagnosed. That still leaves almost 10 percent who don’t receive treatment soon enough.

Because they are often asymptomatic, AAAs can go undetected for years, according to Dr. Ash Jain, cardiologist and medical director of Washington Hospital’s Stroke Program – one of the two physicians interpreting results at the upcoming screening.

"An abdominal aortic aneurysm is a silent killer," says Dr. Jain. "Most of the time the condition goes undiagnosed, and the first occurrence could be fatal. This is why it’s important to screen before a rupture occurs."

Fortunately, for those with risk factors or a family history of AAA, a simple screening can catch an aneurysm of this type before it bursts and causes a medical emergency.

On Saturday, Oct. 23, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Washington Hospital will host a free community screening sponsored by Fremont Bank with a goal of finding abdominal aortic aneurysms before they rupture and become deadly.

Dr. John Thomas Mehigan, Chief of Vascular Surgery and medical director of Washington Hospital’s Vascular Program, has partnered with Dr. Jain to perform the AAA screening at Washington Hospital for almost a decade. He points out that most of these potentially fatal aneurysms are found by accident due to the hard-to-reach position of the artery that supplies blood to the abdomen, pelvis, and legs, which makes an abdominal aortic aneurysm very difficult to feel by routine examination, he says.

"The best time to find an abdominal aortic aneurysm is before it ruptures rather than by accident, and that’s why we go out and do this screening every year," he explains. "Over the course of screening about 150 people, we usually come up with 12, 13, even 14 people, most with small aneurysms, and we want to control their risk factors at this point.

Dr. Jain adds that the free screening is an easy, painless way to detect ruptures before they occur.

"The test is safe, painless and noninvasive and uses ultrasound technology that detects and accurately measures the size of an aneurysm to determine if treatment is needed," according to Dr. Jain. "After we perform the ultrasound testing to look for the presence of an aneurysm, patients have the opportunity to speak with a physician who will explain if they are at risk for a abdominal aortic aneurysm."

So how do you know if you might be at risk for AAA?

"The risk factors are high blood pressure, mainly, as well as atherosclerosis – or any risk factors for heart disease – including diabetes, high cholesterol, family history, smoking and obesity," Dr. Jain says. "High blood pressure is the major risk factor for AAA. Generally participants of the screening should be over 50 and have multiple risk factors."

The good news is that screening itself is easy, with a five-minute ultrasound of the stomach to look for the aneurysm.

"It’s a painless test and if you find an aneurysm, anything less than five centimeters we can treat effectively with medications," Dr. Jain says. In the case of an aneurysm of more than five centimeters in diameter, we will use stents to treat it aggressively."

If you or a loved one has several risk factors for AAA, there is every reason to pre-register for the screening, Dr. Mehigan says.

"I believe ours was the first program in the country to do these screenings, and today they are performed nationwide," Dr. Mehigan states. "Medicare now pays for a one-time screening if you’re over the age of 65 because the yield of AAA diagnoses is so high when screened. We’re pretty proud of the program, and often we find other health risks community members didn’t know they had to begin with."

Dr. Mehigan says the only downside to the screening is that participants must put off breakfast until after they are screened. Each person who is screened will meet individually with a physician discuss the results for free.

The best news?

"After the screening, you get a little snack and you’re out of there," says Dr. Mehigan.

Most importantly, according to Dr. Jain, is that the screening can help diagnose an aneurysm before it ruptures, easily preventing "a disaster" before it happens.

Five-minute screening saves lives

If you think you or a family member might have risk factors for an abdominal aortic aneurysm, call (800) 963-7070 to pre-register for the screening, which will take place on Saturday, Oct. 23, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium located at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont. Walk-ins are not accepted.