By Rita Rubin, USA TODAY
U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke most likely was unaware that his aorta had ballooned into an aneurysm, according to doctors not involved in his care.
Holbrooke, 69, died Monday night after surgeons tried to repair a dissection, or tear, in his aorta, the main artery that carries oxygenated blood from the heart to the rest of the body.
About 3,000 Americans die each year from an aortic dissection, although the actual number probably is higher. If an autopsy isn’t done after someone dies suddenly, “it takes away the opportunity to put pieces of the puzzle together,” says Cam Patterson, chairman of cardiology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Aortic aneurysms don’t cause symptoms, but screening with ultrasound and sometimes CT or MRI scans can detect them before they tear, when they can be easily surgically repaired.
Because the risk of an aortic dissection increases with age, Patterson says, he recommends that all of his patients 65 and older be screened. However, he says, Medicare covers the screening only for men, in whom dissections occur at a younger age, and then only if it’s performed at their first Medicare visit.