Each year, about 200,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with a potentially fatal condition called abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA), a balloon-like bulge in the abdominal aorta, the major artery that supplies blood to the lower part of the body.
Smoking is a major risk factor, as is family history of the condition. Men are at greater risk than women, and the risk increases with age, especially after age 60.
Often, AAA does not cause any symptoms at all. But as the aneurysm gets larger, the walls of the blood vessel become gradually weaker, increasing the risk of rupture.
About 15,000 people die each year from a ruptured AAA. The internal blood loss is so massive and immediate that most people never make it to the hospital for help.
However, if it is caught early enough, the growth of the AAA can be monitored, and the aorta can be surgically repaired if necessary. Thatï¿½s why screening is so important.
Under the provisions of the SAAAVE Act, Medicare offers a one-time screening for new Medicare recipients who have a family history of AAA, or for men ages 65-75 who have smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime. Details are available online at www.medicare.gov/health/AAA.asp.
The screening is a painless, 30-minute examination using a device called an ultrasound machine. The device uses sound waves that travel through the skin and are reflected back to create an image of organs inside the body.
ï¿½Clearly, AAA is a major medical problem that falls into the area of ï¿½unmet needs,ï¿½ï¿½ says Alan Daugherty, associate dean for research at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and director of the UK Cardiovascular Research Center. ï¿½The implementation of screening programs is likely to show that the disease is more common than originally thought.ï¿½
Daugherty and fellow University of Kentucky researcher Lisa Cassis explain that they think a better understanding of what causes AAA could lead to medical therapies that can someday prevent or reverse the condition.
Research at UK has already given scientists some important clues about the particular molecular chemistry that could influence the formation of AAA and the role inflammation might play in the process, Cassis says. This is an important step in moving toward the development of a pharmacological treatment.
ï¿½Drug companies are getting more interested in this disease,ï¿½ Daugherty says.
However, it is unlikely that a drug to treat AAA will be available to patients any time soon. Still, researchers say, hope is there for those who will be diagnosed in the future.
For now, surgical repair is the best treatment available. However, because of the risks associated with surgery, operations are usually performed only if an AAA is large or growing rapidly.