Boston, MA — If you are a man between the ages of 65 and 75, and you smoke or once did, here's an important message: Ask your doctor to check you for a common but generally silent condition that can suddenly turn deadly. According to the Harvard Heart Letter, a simple, painless echocardiogram to detect an abdominal aortic aneurysm can save lives in this group of people. This weakening of the muscular wall of the aorta — the large artery that feeds most of the blood vessels in the body — may weaken and balloon over time. While small aneurysms aren't a problem, those that are two or more inches wide can burst, leading to catastrophic internal bleeding.
Until now, doctors haven't ordinarily checked their patients for such aneurysms. A recent report by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommending the test for men ages 65–75, especially smokers or former smokers, paves the way for more widespread screening. The task force targeted smokers because they are two to four times as likely as nonsmokers to have an aneurysm.
For men under age 65, the balance between risks and benefits of screening remain unclear. The problem is much less common in women, and a large trial found no benefit in screening women. The Harvard Heart Letter points out that these are general recommendations. If you don't fit the 65–75/male smoker mold, an ultrasound for an abdominal aneurysm might still be in order for you if one of your parents or a sibling ever had one.
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