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United States Department  of Veterans Affairs

In the Spotlight

Aneurysm Screening Can Save Your Life


Health screenings can save lives. As we get older, our health care providers may recommend screenings, or tests, that we didn't have or need - or even knew existed - when we were younger. One of these tests might include the abdominal aortic aneurysm, or AAA, screening.

An aneurysm is a bulge in a weak blood vessel that could cause serious health problems, or even death, if it gets too large and bursts. An AAA is a bulge that develops in the large blood vessel called the abdominal aorta, which carries blood from the heart to the lower part of your body.

While researchers don't know what exactly causes AAAs, they do know men between the ages of 65 and 75 who have ever smoked - at least 100 cigarettes over the course of a lifetime - develop larger AAAs at a higher rate than the rest of the population. That's why medical experts advise screening for this high-risk group. Because this group includes many Veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is spreading the word about this lesser-known testing, according to Terri Murphy, Program Manager at VA's National Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (NCP).

Screening is important because most of the time there are no symptoms with AAA, said Murphy. In addition, between 75 percent and 90 percent of those whose aneurysms burst do not survive. Symptoms that could occur with AAA include new back or belly pain or a throbbing in your stomach. "If you have these symptoms, you should report them to your health care team so you can be checked," Murphy said.

A family history of AAA is also a risk factor, as is having heart disease or diseases of blood vessels outside the heart. Talk to your health care team if you think you should have the AAA screening.

Quick and Painless

Getting screened for an AAA is quick and painless. Your local VA Medical Center can perform the screening, which is done with an ultrasound machine. The machine creates a picture of your blood vessel using sound waves.

If your results show a normal-sized blood vessel, you do not have to get screened again, according to Murphy. If you have a small bulge, your health care team may recommend that you get rechecked in two to three years. A medium-sized bulge might require that you get screened sooner - maybe in six months. A large bulge may require surgery.

Putting Prevention First

Although you can't change a risk factor like family history, you can make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of AAA. The most important one is to quit smoking.

"This is another great reason to not smoke," said Murphy. "If you don't smoke, don't start. If you do, quit as soon as you possibly can."

My HealtheVet Healthy Living Center on smoking cessation has information to help you quit smoking. And to help you get and stay in shape, use the online food and activity journals to track what you eat and how many calories you burn. You also can use My HealtheVet to monitor improvements in your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate and other measures of health.

You can download a brochure about AAA screening from the NCP website.

Learn More

Quit Tobacco: Make Everyone Proud
Live help and personal support to quit smoking
Information to help you quit smoking from the National Cancer Institute
More information about AAA

Updated/Reviewed: October 3, 2012

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