The phrase “abdominal aortic aneurysm” (AAA) – or “triple A” – can get the heart pounding and blood pumping in most of us.
A triple A is a weakened or bulging area on the wall of the aorta, the major artery that runs from the left ventricle of the heart to the abdomen. The aorta is the largest artery in the body. It comes with a big job description: carrying blood from our heart to the rest of our body.
“An abdominal aortic aneurysm will grow and grow until it’s in danger of rupture,” said Phung Le, DO, Vascular Surgeon at Yavapai Regional Medical Center (YRMC). “We fix these aneurysms to avoid rupture.”
Dr. Le shared the following facts about the condition:
AAAs are fairly common, particularly among men.
Every year, 200,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with an AAA, according to the Society for Vascular Surgery. AAAs are the 10th leading cause of death in men older than 55. While fewer women experience AAA, the frequency among women rises with age.
AAAs can be asymptomatic.
AAAs are often discovered during tests for other medical conditions. This no doubt has led the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) – an independent, volunteer panel of national experts in disease prevention – to recommend a one-time AAA screening, with an ultrasound, for men ages 65 to 75 years who have ever smoked.
Your family history is important.
Do you have family members who have been diagnosed with AAA? If so, speak to your physician. You’re 12 times more likely to develop an AAA if you have a parent or sibling who has had an AAA.
If you have a family history of AAA and experience sudden, severe pain in the abdomen or back you should seek immediate medical help.
Tobacco use is a big AAA risk factor.
Smokers are three to five times more likely to develop an AAA.
“I work with people on positive lifestyle changes,” he said. “Stopping smoking, getting your blood pressure under control, taking the right cholesterol reducing medication, exercising regularly and managing your diabetes – all of these make a big difference.”
It’s important to know all of the AAA risk factors.
In addition to a family history and tobacco use, other AAA contributors include:
- Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
- High blood pressure
- Elevated cholesterol
- Heart or peripheral vascular disease
- Bacterial or fungal infections in the aorta
- Trauma (a car crash, for example)
Not all AAAs require surgery.
If you’re diagnosed with an AAA that is less than five centimeters in diameter, there is very low risk for rupture. However, your physician will recommend follow-up screenings, usually every six months to a year.
Lifestyle changes – stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet, lowering cholesterol and managing diabetes – are important if you have an AAA that is being monitored.
There are highly successful surgical solutions for AAA.
The risk of rupture increases when an AAA is larger than five centimeters in diameter – about the size of a lemon – or if it is growing quickly. There are two types of AAA surgeries:
- Open Surgery – This traditional surgical repair involves removing the distended portion of the aorta and replacing it with a fabric graft.
- Endovascular Repair – This type of AAA repair involves a small incision. Dr. Le uses a variety of grafts that can be tailored to your particular anatomy. During the endovascular procedure, the graft is positioned so that it sits inside and spans the aneurysm. This prevents the AAA from expanding.
“Blood flow is going through this graft, which means the pressure is taken off of the aneurysm,” Dr. Le said. “When the pressure is taken off, the aneurysm will either stabilize, meaning it won’t grow anymore, or it can actually get smaller over time.”
For more information about AAA, talk to your primary care physician or contact Dr. Le at his Prescott office at (928) 771-1011.