How serious is an aortic aneurysm?

An aortic aneurysm is a very serious, potentially deadly condition, particularly when the diameter of the aneurysm grows to 5.5 centimeters. At this size, it is important to have the aneurysm fixed, as the yearly risk of rupture is high enough to warrant the risk of the surgery. If an aneurysm bursts, it is fatal in most people. Therefore, the goal is surgery to fix the aneurysm before it ruptures.

Aortic aneurysms are potentially life threatening if they occur quickly or rupture. This is a condition that can’t be ignored. If you have been told you have an aortic aneurysm, you must seek medical attention immediately and be monitored.

Dr. Brian G. Derubertis, MD
Vascular Surgeon

An aortic aneurysm is very serious and can be life threatening. The aorta—the body’s primary and largest artery—carries oxygenated blood from the heart to vessels that feed the rest of the body.

Aortic aneurysms can occur anywhere along the aorta–from the heart to the abdomen—when a weak part of the aorta expands like a balloon, forming a blood-filled sac. Such bulges can be life-threatening if they grow too large and rupture. The aorta is made up of three flexible layers, which handle the constant volume of blood sent from the heart. In an aortic dissection, the inner layer tears, allowing blood to flow between layers and separate them. This can result in a potentially fatal aneurysm.

For small aortic aneurysms, a “watch-and-wait” approach may be taken. However, medium and large aneurysms often call for immediate treatment.

Dr. Mark J. Russo, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Aortic aneurysms are the 13th leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 deaths annually.

Aortic disease is often insidious. Most people with aortic aneurysms experience no symptoms, unless they are extremely large or an aortic dissection occurs. For most people, their aortic condition is discovered incidentally while being tested for other reasons.

A number of famous people have died of aortic catastrophes, including:

  • Albert Einstein
  • Olympic volleyball champion Flo Hyman
  • Broadway composer of “Rent” Jonathan Larson
  • Diplomat Richard Holbrook
  • Lucille Ball
  • George C. Scott
  • Actor John Ritter

Aortic aneurysms, which result from weakening of the aortic wall, can lead to rupture or dissection (a tear in the aorta). The risk of these events increases as the size of the aneurysm increases. Rupture of the aorta most frequently results in immediate death. Aortic dissection is the most common catastrophe of the aorta. As many as 40 percent of people with aortic dissections die instantly, and the risk of the death increases 1 to 3 percent every hour.

Surgery is recommended in order to prevent an aortic catastrophes, including aortic rupture or aortic dissection. An aortic rupture is typically a fatal event. An aortic dissection is associated with a high rate of death as well as other serious complications including heart attack, stroke, and paralysis. The risk of these events increases with aortic size.

For aneurysms less than 5 cm, the risk of aortic catastrophe is approximately 4 to 6 percent per year. When the aneurysm grows to 5-6 cm, the annual risk increases to as much as 12 percent per year, and at 7 cm it exceeds 25 percent per year. Given these risks, surgery is usually recommended for patients with aneurysms 5 to 5.5 cm in diameter.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.