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:

To learn more about the different types of genetic risks, review the Ritter Rules.

Email info@johnritterfoundation.org with any questions/requests

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.  

We are proud of the research being performed at the John Ritter Research Program. Check out the research group’s 21 publications for 2014 and acknowledgement of your support here.

Your philanthropic contributions and participation make a difference. When everyone gets involved, we can do more.

To learn more about getting involved by participating in research, visit the Resources page or visit www.JohnRitterResearchProgram.org.

Download a copy of the research study brochure here.

To help by donating to the John Ritter Foundation click here.

It can be difficult to find others to talk to who understand what aortic disease is like.  The John Ritter Foundation is pleased to pass along information about a support group meeting organized by a survivor of aortic dissection in Michigan.  Everyone that has been affected by aortic disease is welcome to attend and support each other.  Here are the details: Read more

Thank you to the Omaha World-Herald for this powerful story of how medical education and process change saved a life.  Thank you, Nebraska Methodist Health System, our TAD Coalition partner, for your efforts to educate your medical team on aortic dissection!  Read the story here.

Tim Ealer’s father, George, passed away due to complications of an aortic dissection. Since then, Tim has learned that this disease can run in families. He spoke with a reporter about his dad and the importance of screening (aortic imaging) if you have a family history of thoracic aortic aneurysm and/or dissection. Watch the interview here:  Tim Ealer on 41 Today (NBC/WMGT).

Learn more here:  Your Aortic Health.

Many people contact the JRF and the John Ritter Research Program in Aortic and Vascular Diseases looking for support groups.  Unfortunately, very few currently exist.  We would like to identify existing groups and facilitate new groups.  If you are interested in finding a support group or know of an existing group, please complete our survey which will be available through December 3, 2013:  https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1YO3sKI8Lu2V4z49kq-1fh4wfI-7XGAhaoFoM-4JmEWU/viewform

* 2015 SHIRTS ARE AVAILABLE- CLICK HERE TO CHECK THEM OUT! *

On November 3, twenty-two Team Ritter runners ran the ING NYC Marathon and earned Finisher medals.  Although this was not the first time some of the runners had completed a marathon, it may have been the most meaningful for them.  Why?  Because this race was only one milestone among many during their journey to the marathon.

Over the last five months, Team Ritter’s 2013 ING New York City Marathon running team has informed hundreds of people about thoracic aortic disease by sharing their stories at health fairs, during media interviews, at fundraising events, and by talking to anyone who would listen.  To date, they have raised over $114,000 so we can inform and educate the public and medical professionals about thoracic aortic disease, provide support to individuals and families affected by aortic disease, and fund research.  And they have done all this while training for a marathon!

We are very proud of our team.  Please join us in congratulating Team Ritter on a job well done!

2013 Team Ritter - ING NYC Marathon with Amy Yasbeck, Stella, and Jason Ritter

2013 Team Ritter - ING NYC Marathon team with Amy Yasbeck, Stella, and Jason Ritter

#TeamRitter
@JRFromtheHeart
@JohnRitterPRGM

HOUSTON – (Oct. 9, 2013) – Friends and family members of people with thoracic aortic disease and fans of the late legendary comedic actor John Ritter will come together as Team Ritter to raise funds for the John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health (JRF) at the ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 3, 2013.

“We are so proud and grateful to again be one of the official charities of this year’s NYC Marathon and have the opportunity to raise much-needed funds for lifesaving research and education,” said actress, writer and aortic health advocate Amy Yasbeck, the widow of Ritter, who died from an acute aortic dissection in 2003. “Team Ritter runners are passionate about increasing awareness of aortic dissection and its risk factors and are committed to raising funds to support the JRF.”

Funds from the NYC Marathon raised for the JRF will go to the John Ritter Research Program in Aortic and Vascular Diseases (JRRP) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) to support research to identify genetic risks for aortic dissections. To donate, visit Edward Norton’s Crowdrise online fundraising community: www.crowdrise.com/TeamRitterINGNYCMarathon2013.

“The funds raised by Team Ritter will allow us to continue our genetic research to identify genes or altered DNA that increases someone’s risk for an acute aortic dissection. By identifying who is at risk, we can prevent premature deaths due to aortic dissections,” said Dianna Milewicz, M.D., Ph.D., director of UTHealth’s John Ritter Research Program. “It will also help us spread information to both physicians and the public about symptoms and genetic risk factors for aortic dissections, including the fact that this condition can run in families.” Milewicz is professor and George H. W. Bush Chair in Cardiovascular Research in the Division of Medical Genetics at the UTHealth Medical School.
Fundraising Websites – Crowdrise
Read more and meet the team here: Read more

It can be difficult to find others to talk to who understand what an aortic dissection survivor has been through.  The John Ritter Foundation is pleased to pass along information about future group meetings that a Nurse Practitioner has organized in New Jersey.  Read more

A multi-institutional team led by Dianna Milewicz, M.D., Ph.D., of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) has found a recurrent genetic mutation that has been linked to deadly thoracic aortic dissections in family members as young as 17 years of age.  The gene known as PRKG1 makes a protein called cGMP-dependent kinase, type I.  The PRKG1 mutation alters the function of the protein and causes the muscle cells in the wall of the aorta to respond incorrectly to pulsatile blood flow from the heart, and the change in this one protein ultimately causes thoracic aortic aneurysm and acute aortic dissection.  The mutation was identified in four families, including three in the United States.  The majority of the affected family members suffered acute aortic dissections at young ages (17 to 51 years).

Milewicz is professor and director of the Division of Genetics at the UTHealth Medical School and holds the President George H.W. Bush Chair in Cardiovascular Research.  She is also on the faculty of The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and director of the The John Ritter Research Program in Aortic and Vascular Diseases.  Co-authors and investigators included teams from University of California at San Diego, Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicále of France, University of Washington, Baylor College of Medicine, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and the GenTAC Registry Consortium.  Read more here:  http://www.johnritterresearchprogram.org/?p=1046