DEAR DR. ROACH: My husband will be 83 in September and was recently diagnosed with an ascending thoracic aortic aneurysm measuring 4.8 cm. Five centimeters is when the doctors decide to do something. After hearing about the survival rate based on your recent column, along with your comment that “most people do not survive a rupture of the aorta,” I’m scared. Why do they wait until 5.0 or rupture? His doctor says to test again in six months and to just keep his blood pressure down. Shouldn’t he be careful about strenuous activities until repair? We can only wait at this point, it seems. — C.G.
ANSWER: The aorta, the largest blood vessel in the body, comes directly off the heart, ascends to form an arch, and then descends through the chest into the abdomen. The aorta is then considered in three divisions: the ascending thoracic aorta; the descending thoracic aorta; and the abdominal aorta. Aneurysms can occur in each of these areas, and each has slightly different criteria for when to intervene.
In my most recent column, that was an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Most adults with an ascending TAA are recommended for surgical repair at a diameter of 5.5 cm. However, if the aneurysm is rapidly expanding, surgery may be considered earlier. If a person has a medical illness, making surgery very risky, surgeons may wait until the size exceeds 6 cm. The decision on when to operate requires judgement from an experienced surgeon and cardiologist. This is a major surgery with potential for harm, including death, and it’s not to be undertaken unless the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. Rupture is unlikely at less than 6 cm.
Keeping the blood pressure down (below 120 systolic) is a good idea. Beta blockers are most commonly used for that, based on studies in people with genetic risk for TAA, such as Marfan syndrome. Statin drugs are often used, as there is evidence to suggest that they slow down expansion of the aneurysm.
DEAR DR. ROACH: You recently wrote on the concerns of bisphosphonate drugs like alendronate (Fosamax) in people with osteoporosis. These drugs, especially intravenous zoledronic acid, have been game-changers in patients with breast and other cancers that spread to bone. They have dramatically reduced the incidence of dangerously high calcium in people with cancer and have substantially reduced bone fractures due to cancer. There is a considerable body of literature supporting their use as therapy to reduce recurrence, and even mortality, in selected patients with early stages of breast cancer.
When we first started using them [at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center], we observed osteonecrosis of the jaw in about 10 percent of treated patients. We quickly realized we could reduce the risk by using them less frequently and by having our patients see dentists to ensure hygiene before we start. With these considerations, the incidence of osteonecrosis of the jaw with bisphosphonates (or denosumab) has dropped to less than 1 percent.
These medicines are very important for patients with cancers that have spread to bone, and we don’t want people afraid of these very effective agents that are safe when used correctly. — D.H.
ANSWER: I appreciate the information from Dr. Daniel F. Hayes and am happy to share with my readers.
Dr. Roach regrets that he is unable to answer individual questions, but will incorporate them in the column whenever possible. Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.
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