Older adults may be at risk for abdominal aortic aneurysms

We're talking about abdominal aortic aneurysms. They are weak spots in the wall of the main artery that runs through the body. These aneurysms can grow pain free. But there is a way to detect the problem before it's too late.

"Every year, I buy myself a play toy. I deserve it," said David Backulich. And this year he really deserves it.

Backulich was diagnosed with prostate cancer and lymphoma. Then it was bladder cancer. Tests for the cancer revealed another life-threatening situation.

"In a way, I say the cancer saved my life," said Backulich.

Backulich had two aneurysms. An aneurysm is where a portion of an artery balloons and can eventually rupture.

"Aneurysms are increasing in incidence, and they are becoming more common," said Dr. Martin Back, vascular surgeon, Tampa General Hospital.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm is an aneurysm that develops the main artery of the body. Approximately 200,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year. Nine out of 10 patients who have an AAA that ruptures die. But if caught early, it doesn't have to be a medical emergency.

An ultrasound scan of the aorta can reveal if trouble is brewing. If the aorta is found to be a normal size, chances are the patient will never develop an aneurysm. But Evanston Hospital radiologist Carolyn Donaldson says for those people who do have one,.the discovery could be lifesaving.

"The danger of not knowing you have an aneurysm is that as the vessel weakens and continues to enlarge, and with it gets to a certain point, it can burst or rupture and cause internal bleeding. And that can lead to death," Donaldson said.

Many doctors say the screen makes sense because there are rarely warning signs until it's too late. But critics say checking every Baby Boomer for AAA isn't worth the cost and may result in unnecessary surgery.

John Hancko said he didn't want to take a risk. During a routine physical, his doctor picked up on something while listening to Hancko's chest.

"He just felt that pulsating there, and he said, you know, I'm a little suspicious; let's investigate," said Hancko.

An ultrasound revealed Hancko's aorta to be in good shape. But if a small aneurysm is detected, often doctors will recommend watchful waiting to see if it grows to the point where surgery is needed. That's what happened to Douglas Bell.

"I never knew anything about them until they found the one on me. Then I got educated quick," Bell said.

Risk factors include being a male, over the age of 60, having high blood pressure and a history of smoking. Guidelines suggest all men over age 60 and even women over age 60 with risk factors have an ultrasound. And for some people, the screen will be covered by insurance.

"Now that Medicare has approved funding for screening of these aneurysms, we will be seeing more of them," said Bell.

When AAAs are detected and treated early, more than 95 percent of people recover completely. Newer legislation passed by Congress allows for reimbursement of this screening in certain patients over 65. Cost of the procedure typically runs about $200 - 300.



Dr. Carolyn Donaldson
Radiologist, Evanston Hospital
Evanston Hospital
2650 Ridge Ave
Department of Radiology G507
Evanston IL 60201
Fax 847.570.2942

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