Harvard Heart Letter

Ask the doctor: Abdominal aortic aneurysm screening

Q. I am a 71-year-old man with high blood pressure, and I smoked for many years. Should I be tested for an abdominal aortic aneurysm?

A. Yes. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that men ages 65 to 75 who have ever smoked undergo a one-time ultrasound test to check for an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA). This dangerous condition is a bulge or ballooning in the wall of the body's largest artery (the aorta) where it passes through the abdomen. If the aneurysm grows large—which can happen slowly over time—it can burst and cause potentially fatal bleeding.

The risk of AAA rises with age. Both smoking and high blood pressure can damage and weaken the walls of the aorta, which is why you should get checked. For men who have never smoked, testing is optional. But the recommendations advise against routine testing for women, because they are less likely to develop an AAA.

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