Dear Savvy Senior,
My father died several years ago, at the age of 76, from a stomach aneurysm, which now has me wondering. What are my risk factors of getting this, and what can I do to protect myself, as I get older?
--Just turned 60
Stomach aneurysms, also known as "abdominal aortic aneurysms," are very dangerous. They also tend to run in families, so having had a parent with this condition makes you much more vulnerable yourself.
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 early are treatable.
Who's At Risk?
Around 200,000 people are diagnosed with AAAs each year, but estimates suggest that another two million people may have it but not realize it. The factors that can put you at increased risk are:
- Smoking: Ninety percent of people with an AAA smoke or have smoked. This is the number one risk factor and one you can avoid.
- Age: Your risk of getting an AAA increases significantly after age 60 in men, and after age 70 in women.
- Family history: Having a parent or sibling who has had an AAA can increase your risk to around one in four.
- Gender: AAAs are five times more likely in men than in women.
- Health factors: Atherosclerosis, also known as hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels also increase your risk.
Detection and Treatment
Because AAAs usually start small and enlarge slowly, they rarely show any symptoms, making them difficult to detect. However, large AAAs can sometimes cause a throbbing or pulsation in the abdomen, or cause abdominal or lower back pain.
The best way to detect an AAA is to get a simple, painless, 10-minute ultrasound screening test. All men over age 65 that have ever smoked, and anyone over 60 with a first-degree relative (father, mother or sibling) who has had an AAA should talk to their doctor getting screened.
You should also know that most health insurance plans cover AAA screenings, as does Medicare to beneficiaries with a family history of AAAs, and to men between the ages of 65 and 75 who have smoked at least 100 cigarettes during their life.
If an AAA is detected during screening, how it's treated will depend on its size, 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. But if it is large or enlarging rapidly, you'll probably need surgery.
While some risk factors like your age, gender and family history are uncontrollable, there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself from AAA. For starters, if you smoke, you need to quit -- see smokefree.gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for help.
You also need to keep tabs on your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and if they are high you need to take steps to lower them through diet, exercise and if necessary, medication.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.