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Published on April 17, 2017

AAA screenings save lives

If you have a male patient 65 to 75 years old who has smoked 100 cigarettes or more in his lifetime, a simple screening for an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) could save his life.

Jon Zlabek, MD, Gundersen Vascular Institute

Jon Zlabek, MD, Gundersen Vascular Institute

AAA occurs when the lower part of the aorta becomes abnormally large (at least 50 percent larger than the adjacent portion of normal artery) and balloons outward.

"It's a common disorder," says Jon Zlabek, MD, Gundersen Health System Vascular Institute, "and it's very serious. Men are five times more likely than women to develop abdominal aortic aneurysms, as are smokers. In addition, the older the patient, the greater the chance of developing an AAA."

Patients who are Medicare age and have a first-degree relative with AAA also are at increased risk for the condition, which Dr. Zlabek likens to a ticking time bomb.

Abdominal aortic aneurysms often grow slowly, and they rarely present with symptoms. This latter characteristic heightens the importance of screenings and early detection, because when an AAA gets too large and bursts, it's often too late. More than 12,000 people suffer ruptured aortic aneurysms every year. Only about 10 percent survive.

The good news: Gundersen offers a quick, noninvasive screening to help your patients avoid this silent but deadly disease, and the screening is covered by Medicare for qualifying individuals. Patients who are at risk for AAA but not covered by Medicare can still have the potentially life-saving screening for $100.

"Evidence shows that conducting a screening ultrasound for at-risk patients effectively detects abnormalities in the abdominal aorta early on," Dr. Zlabek says. "If the test results are positive, we will work with your patients to monitor the size of the aneurysm and discuss treatment options. However, most aneurysms can be carefully followed for a number of years without surgery."

Unless your patients are screened, or an AAA is discovered during a scan or X-ray for an unrelated procedure, most patients will not know if they have the disorder. Dr. Zlabek hopes that more people at risk for AAA will be encouraged by their providers to proactively take advantage of screening options available, allowing time for treatment before it's too late.

"Screenings are important," Dr. Zlabek says, "because the majority of patients will never have any symptoms."

For more information about AAA or to refer a patient for a screening or treatment, contact the Vascular Institute via MedLink at (800) 336-5465 (in La Crosse 775-5465).

Who are candidates for AAA screening?

  • Men between 65 to 75 years old who have ever smoked
  • Anyone Medicare age who has a first-degree relative with AAA
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