What is an Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (AAA) screening?
An abdominal aortic aneurysm is a non-invasive procedure that tests your heartbeat for irregularities. Getting screened for an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) may not be at the top of your priority list, but it turns out what you don't know actually can hurt you, especially when it comes to AAAs. Taking some time to do a simple and pain-free screening could save your life.
Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm
The word "aneurysm" might make you nervous, but don't panic yet. While an AAA is definitely something you want to be aware of, it often doesn't actually affect your day-to-day. The problem is more about the risk it presents for the future than the aneurysm itself.
An AAA is what we call it when the aorta—the largest artery in your body—balloons in your abdomen. It usually happens in people over 50 due to plaque building up over time, but it can also be caused by injury or infection.
The biggest issue with AAA is that if it's left untreated, it might eventually rupture. When the artery wall weakens and splits—or bursts entirely—it means internal bleeding, which makes it an emergency medical situation.
The risk of rupture depends on size—the bigger the aneurysm, the greater the risk. More often than not, small aneurysms don't become an issue, but the stakes for larger ones are high: nearly 80 percent of people who do experience a rupture will not survive as long as it often takes for medical personnel to reach them.
So while living with an AAA isn't necessarily the end of the world, it's crucial to know where you stand and whether you need treatment.
How do I know if I should get screened?
Some people are more at risk for AAA than others due to tobacco use, high blood pressure and/or cholesterol, obesity, family history, age and even gender. (AAA is most common in white males over 65.)
As we mentioned above, the problem with waiting until you experience any sort of symptoms to get screened is that many people with AAAs experience no symptoms at all until it's too late.
All adults age 50 and up should get screened every 1–3 years, but if you exhibit one or more of these risk factors, you should start screenings at age 40, particularly for males:
High blood pressure
Family history of AAAs
What happens at an AAA screening?
An AAA screening is actually an easy and painless experience. The first thing to know is that there are no needles and you don't have to wear any awkward hospital gowns. All of your clothes stay on. A screening is performed by a trained sonographer, which is someone who uses an ultrasound machine to gather information about the inside of your body, as is done for pregnant women.
The sonographer has you lie on your back and then takes a quick scan of your abdomen. This scan measures the aorta at different key areas, as well as any areas that show ballooning. The whole thing takes about 10–15 minutes from beginning to end. Once you're done, everything is sent off to a board-certified physician who then reviews the images and measurements, and results are sent to you within 21 days along with an explanation of what they mean.
What if I have an AAA?
If you have an AAA, you'll be encouraged to visit your healthcare provider to create a plan of action. Basically, the goal of treatment for AAAs is simply to prevent rupture.
Sometimes, if the aneurysm is small, your doctor will recommend simply monitoring the issue—checking in regularly to ensure it stays small and does not grow quickly—rather than recommending a treatment right away. You may also be encouraged to change your diet and increase your exercise level.
If the aneurysm is larger, your doctor may recommend surgery to reinforce or replace the weakened part of the artery wall with a graft (a synthetic tube) and prevent a future rupture. Sometimes the treatment is open abdominal surgery, but often the less-invasive process of endovascular repair does the trick. This includes inserting a tiny tube through an artery in your leg to attach the graft.
Can I Prevent an AAA?
While we can't say with 100% certainty that you can prevent it, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. If you remember, AAAs are caused by plaque building up in your arteries. There's no single contributor to arterial plaque, but doctors have pinpointed a lot of factors that can make it build up faster in certain individuals. High blood pressure is a big one, as is consuming large amounts of cholesterol. Smoking can speed up the process as well. Stress can also be a factor, which might feel like something you have no control over, but there are a lot of really great resources out there to help you manage your stress levels.
Then there are a number of factors that are completely out of your control, but you should still be mindful of. Family history is probably the biggest one. You can be perfectly healthy, but if something runs in your family, you need to keep a close eye on it no matter what.
The Bottom Line
Get screened for an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) if you are over the age of 50, especially if you're male. People living with AAAs often don't experience symptoms, but when a rupture occurs, it's bad news. So be sure to get screened regularly—it could be the difference between a minor surgical treatment and a medical emergency.
Peace of Mind With Life Line Screening
At Life Line Screening, we have years of experience helping people prevent major medical issues with vital early detection services, including AAA screenings. In fact, screenings are our specialty. We partner with community centers to help people get quick, easy access to the screenings they want to stay on top of their health. No lengthy doctor's visits, no complicated insurance to deal with, just convenient screenings for health-conscious people conducted by trained professionals.