The Basics: Overview
If you're a man age 65 to 75 and have ever smoked, ask your doctor about getting screened (tested) for abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA).
Am I at risk for AAA?
Men over age 65 who have smoked at any point in their lives have the highest risk of AAA. Both men and women can have AAA, but it's more common in men.
Risk factors for AAA include:
- Family history – for example, if a parent or sibling had AAA
- Older age
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease or vascular disease (problems with blood vessels)
What is AAA?
The aorta is your body’s main artery. An artery is a blood vessel (or tube) that carries blood from your heart. The aorta carries blood from your heart to your abdomen, pelvis, and legs.
If the wall of your aorta is weak, it can swell up like a balloon. This balloon-like swelling is called an aneurysm (“AN-yoor-izm”). AAA is an aneurysm that happens in the part of the aorta running through the abdomen.
Why do I need to talk to the doctor?
Aneurysms usually grow slowly without any symptoms. When aneurysms grow large enough to rupture (burst), they can cause dangerous bleeding inside the body that can lead to death.
If AAA is found early, it can be treated before it bursts. That’s why it’s so important to talk to your doctor about your risk.
The Basics: Testing and Symptoms
How do I know if I have AAA?
To screen for AAA, your doctor may order an ultrasound. An ultrasound uses sound waves to look inside the body. It can help your doctor see if there's any swelling in your aorta. Ultrasounds are usually painless.
What are the symptoms of AAA?
AAA doesn't usually cause symptoms until it’s a medical emergency. Blood vessels like the aorta can swell up slowly over time, so it’s important to talk with your doctor about AAA to see if you need to get tested.
A ruptured aneurysm can cause dangerous bleeding that can lead to death. If this happens, you may suddenly have:
- Pain in your lower back, abdomen, or legs
- Nausea (feeling like you're going to throw up)
- Vomiting (throwing up)
- Clammy (sweaty) skin
If you have a ruptured aneurysm, you'll need to have surgery right away.
What does AAA look like?
Here's an example of what AAA looks like inside the body:
Take Action: Talk to Your Doctor
Take these steps to lower your risk for AAA.
Talk with your doctor about your risk for AAA.
Here are some questions you might want to ask your doctor or nurse:
- Do I need to get screened for AAA?
- How can I get help to quit smoking?
- What are my blood pressure and cholesterol numbers?
- What other steps can I take to keep my heart and blood vessels healthy?
What about the cost of screening?
Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance plans must cover AAA screening for men ages 65 to 75 who have ever smoked. This means you may be able to get screened at no cost to you.
- If you have Medicare, find out about Medicare coverage for AAA screening.
- If you have private insurance, talk to your insurance provider about what’s included in your plan. Ask about the Affordable Care Act.
For information about other services covered under the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.
Take Action: Lower Your Risk
Make changes to lower your risk for AAA.
It’s never too late to take steps to lower your risk for AAA.
Quitting smoking is the most important thing you can do to lower your risk for AAA.
If you smoke, now is the time to quit. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for free support and help making a plan to quit.
Check your blood pressure.
Get your blood pressure checked. If your blood pressure is high, you can help lower it by getting active, watching your weight, and eating less sodium (salt).
- Use this list to help you shop for lower-sodium foods.
- Get more tips on how to lower your blood pressure [PDF - 275 KB].
Get your cholesterol checked.
Find out what your cholesterol levels are. If your cholesterol is high, start a heart-healthy eating plan. This means eating foods low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol. Find out more about eating healthy.
Aim for 2 hours and 30 minutes of physical activity every week. Check out these ways to add more activity to your day.
Content last updated January 24, 2020
This information on abdominal aortic aneurysm was adapted from materials from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
H. Eser Tolunay, Ph.D. and Patrice Desvigne-Nickens, M.D.
Division of Cardiovascular Sciences
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
National Institutes of Health