Hollywood actor, Alan Thicke, died due to an acute aortic dissection. This is the same cause of death that led to the tragic loss of life of fellow Hollywood comedian and actor John Ritter over 13 years ago in Los Angeles. An acute aortic dissection can mimic a heart attack and if not detected and treated emergently, nearly 40% of all incidents of aortic dissection lead to death. Yet, many of the 25,000 people a year who die from an aortic dissection could potentially be diagnosed before the dissection and treated so a dissection is prevented.
What is an Aortic Dissection?
An aortic dissection occurs when there is a tear in the wall of the aorta, the major artery coming out of the heart. The tear allows the blood to ‘dissect’ from inside the lumen of the aorta into the wall. As the dissection progresses, the wall is torn apart and weakened, leading to aortic rupture and sudden death.
Alan Thicke complained of chest pains while playing hockey on December 13th. His chest pains were most likely due to the acute tear in the aorta and the following aortic dissection. His dissected aorta ruptured three hours later, ultimately leading to his death. Alan Thicke’s aortic rupture was caused by his aortic dissection.
How To Prevent an Aortic Dissection?
Much is written about how the flaw in the aorta that leads to dissection is “undetectable” and “untreatable.” However, many people of the 25,000 people a year who die of aortic disease can be diagnosed before the dissection, and treated so that a dissection is prevented. Typically, there is a widening or ballooning out of the aorta, called an aneurysm, before the dissection occurs. These aneurysms progressively grow larger without symptoms. While people can live with a growing aneurysm for years, when a dissection occurs, it often kills quickly within a matter of hours. If the aneurysm is detected, it can be surgically repaired to prevent a dissection.
The aorta is the main vessel that sends blood away from the heart to the rest of the body. It is shaped like a candy cane and is typically about as wide as a garden hose (2.5-3.5 cm). When blood is pumped by the heart, it first travels through the aorta. An aortic aneurysm is a widening, bulging, or ballooning out of a portion of the aorta. Aneurysms usually occur where there is a weak spot in the aortic wall.
What Are the Risk Factors For Aortic Aneurysms and Dissections?
There are several factors that can increase the risk of dissection, including genetic and environmental influences:
Genetic factors can increase the risk for aortic disease. If you have a family member who has had an aortic dissection, this is a red flag that other family members may also be at risk for an aortic dissection. After John Ritter’s death, his family members had imaging to determine if they had an undetected aneurysm. It was found that John’s brother did have an aneurysm. He had it surgically repaired, and is alive and well today. Had he not taken preventative measures, the chances for aortic dissection were considerably high.
Genetic syndromes like Marfan, Loeys-Dietz and vascular Ehlers Danlos syndrome can predispose to aortic dissection.
Environmental factors that increase the chance to develop an aortic aneurysm or dissection include the following:
- Uncontrolled hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Bicuspid aortic valve
- Weight lifting (http://www.iradonline.org/articles/lifestyle_recs.html for recommendations regarding lifestyle and work)
- Trauma to the aorta (e.g. being in a car accident)
To learn more about the different types of genetic risks, review the Ritter Rules.
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About The John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health:
Founded in October 2003, just weeks after actor John Ritter’s sudden death due to an acute aortic dissection, the foundation is dedicated to improving the identification of individuals at risk for aortic dissections and the treatment of thoracic aortic disease through medical research. The foundation also seeks to provide accurate information to the general public about the disease and its risk factors, along with support to individuals who have thoracic aortic disease or have lost a loved one to the disease.