The Aorta is like a mighty river inside you, carrying blood pumped by your heart to your brain, limbs and vital organs
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The Aorta is your body's largest artery. It is like a mighty river inside you, carrying blood pumped by your heart to your brain, limbs and vital organs. On average, the Aorta of an adult is 33cm (13in) long. At the top is the Aortic valve, which opens and closes with each beat of your heart, allowing the blood to flow. At the bottom (in your belly) the Aorta splits into the two common iliac arteries which supply blood to your groin area and legs. A normal adult Aorta is around 3.5cm in diameter at the top where it exits the heart. It narrows to around 1.7cm just before the bifurcation (split) at the bottom. These measurements may vary depending on age, gender and body size. The heart pumps the entire volume of blood in your body (5 litres or 1.2 US gallons) through your Aorta once per minute. If something goes wrong with your Aorta, it can be a serious and even life-threatening illness.
Aortic Disease in Families:
Aortic disease can run in families, meaning that it can be passed down from one generation to the next. If a person has a family history of aortic disease, they may be at higher risk for developing the condition themselves. There are many types of inherited aortic diseases, some of them have names*, but most do not. Aortic diseases are caused by genetic variations in the genes that control the strength and flexibility of the building blocks of the aorta. The exception is an infection of the aorta, which is rare.
If you have a family history of aortic disease, it's important to talk to your doctor about your risk for developing the condition. Your doctor may recommend treatment of your blood pressure and heart rate at a lower threshold than in the general population. You may need regular monitoring of your aorta to detect any changes. Lifestyle changes, medication and in some cases, surgery are the only options available to treat aortic disease and reduce the risk of complications.
Some families are recommended to have genetic counselling and testing. Family screening and regular monitoring enables doctors to offer lifestyle advice, medication or surgery at the right time to those who need it for their aortic disease, preventing complications and prolonging life.
* Marfans, Loeys-Dietz, vascular Ehlers-Danlos (vEDS) and Turner syndromes are all examples of genetic aortic diseases, but there are many others.
Questions for your Family:
Has anyone in your family ever had an aortic aneurysm, aortic rupture, aortic dissection, unexplained sudden death or a bleed in the brain?
Is there a history of sudden cardiac death in your family, for example from a “massive heart attack”?
Are there any family members with a diagnosis of a Bicuspid Aortic Valve (where the valve has two leaflets instead of the usual three) or with Marfan, Loeys-Dietz, vascular Ehlers-Danlos or Turner syndrome?
In the past, deaths from aortic disease were not always recognized and may have been attributed to other heart-related conditions. Talk to your extended family (parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) about this and about the diseases that may run in the family, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and Aortic Disease.