5 Reasons You Should Care About Your Aorta

The aorta can degenerate with aging.

You may not have been paying attention recently, but two recent celebrity deaths featured in the news were both attributed to complications from their aorta.

Alan Thicke

Bill Paxton

Over 10,000 people die each year in the United States from aortic-related causes.

As a busy Heart Surgeon who specializes in managing and treating patients with a wealth of different aortic problems, I am constantly meeting patients and families from all different backgrounds. Regardless of the circumstances, a common theme runs through all the encounters I have with people who end up in my office.

What is the aorta and how is it affecting my health?

Invariably, I spend the time necessary to discuss the anatomy of the aorta, the type of aortic disorder they have and what needs to be done about it.

Having gone through this process with every patient and family that I meet, there are some common themes and questions that invariably weave through our encounters.

To that end, I wanted to share for everyone 5 fundamental things people need to know about the aorta and how the aorta affects their health.

1. The aorta is the largest blood vessel of the body and connects directly with the heart.

The aorta is generally the width of a garden hose (1 and a half inches) and connects to the heart in the middle of the chest. The aorta connects to the heart at the level of the aortic valve. The aorta then ascends in the chest to the base of the neck, gives off branches to the brain and upper extremities, curves around like a candy cane and then runs the length of the torso right next to the spine. As it runs the length of the body, the aorta has branches to vital organs such as the intestines, liver and kidney.

2. The aorta can deteriorate one of 2 ways: slowly and gradually over time or suddenly in an instant.

A number of problems can occur with the aorta which are separate and different from heart disease. The aorta is compliant and expands and contracts with every heart beat, and in rare circumstances a portion of the aorta can dilate slowly overtime. Simply put, the elastic tissue in one segment of the aorta can deteriorate and give way due to the repetitive strain of expanding and contracting with each heart beat. This regional deterioration in elastic tissue leads to enlargement which is called an aneurysm. An aortic aneurysm can burst or rupture at any point due to the thinning-out of the aortic wall, but the larger the degree of swelling, the higher the risk of rupture. An aortic aneurysm can take years to develop and grow.

A sudden, instantaneous deterioration of the aorta is an aortic dissection. This type of problem occurs without warning when a portion of the arterial wall of the aorta simply rips apart in the space of a few heart beats. This type of aortic problem is instantly life-threatening and requires urgent medical attention. Sometimes there are warning signs leading up to the initiation of the aortic dissection, such as intermittent chest and back pain. Other times, the aortic dissection occurs without warning signs.

3. There are known risk factors for developing an aortic disease.

Even though diseases of the aorta are separate and distinct from heart disease, there are common factors which contribute to both diseases. High blood pressure, called hypertension, is a factor which contributes to aortic disease. High blood pressure, even if you are taking blood pressure medications, causes repeated strain to the aorta which can weaken the elastic tissue over time. High blood cholesterol, called hyperlipidemia, causes deposits of cholesterol and calcium into the wall of the aorta which can cause structural deterioration. The simple process of aging can lead to deterioration of the aorta due to overall loss of integrity of all tissues in the body. Most importantly, though, tobacco smoke is one of the largest factors (preventable, I might add) that contributes to aortic disease. There are chemicals within tobacco smoke which actually breaks down elastic tissue in the body at the molecular level. Frequently, many variables are involved.

4. Aortic disease can be inherited from your parents and ancestors.

That’s right. 10% of patients with aortic disease develop the disease as a result of a genetic factor. Medical science has figured out some of those factors, such as Marfan Syndrome or Loeys-Dietz Syndrome, but many other genetic factors have yet to be determined. If anyone in your family that you are aware of has had an aortic problem, it is important for you to communicate that to your doctor. That information can possibly change the type of screening tests you receive as part of your annual physical.

5. There are many ways to treat aortic diseases.

The most effective and common approach to treating aortic diseases is with strict blood pressure control. “Strict” means a systolic blood pressure no higher than 130 mmHg (top number). I always recommend that patients with aortic disease purchase a home blood pressure machine and keep a daily log of their blood pressure at the same time every day. This is the best method of ensuring that your daily blood pressure trends remain in the desired range. There are many other treatment options such as open heart surgery or less-invasive aortic stents. The treatment decision and approach is individualized and tailored for each patient and aortic condition. This is where working with an aortic expert is important. Although many doctors are familiar with aortic diseases, an aortic expert is familiar with the most up-to-date indications for surgery and types of aortic procedures. If you or a loved one has an aortic condition, consider seeking the expertise of an aortic expert. Not all hospitals and clinics have an aortic expert.

For more information about the aorta and its diseases, check-out BadAorta.com.

To get specific information about heart surgery and less-invasive endovascular treatments, check out drgraysonwheatley.com.