If Your Relative Has an Aneurysm, You Might Have One Too

Familial link is one of many risk factors, studies say

Portrait of a family smiling

You might consider having a brain scan if an immediate family member has been diagnosed with a cerebral aneurysm. Ongoing clinical studies have established a link for this condition among close relatives.

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A brain aneurysm is an abnormal bubble in a brain artery that develops where a blood vessel wall becomes weak.

“Among first-degree relatives, if one person has a cerebral aneurysm, it would be appropriate to have the rest of the family, children or siblings, checked out after a discussion with a primary care physician,” usually with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, says cerebrovascular physician assistant Curtis Pavlick.

“A first-degree relative who has had a cerebral aneurysm may increase your chances,” he says.  “We’ve had situations where an adult in her 40s was found to have a cerebral aneurysm.  On the suggestion that others be checked, her sister was found to have one and their mother was found to have one as well.”

Mr. Pavlick says the studies suggest the link may vary between 10 percent and 20 percent. But all have shown that doctors find that relatives of aneurysm patients occasionally have an aneurysm too.

That risk becomes even more likely if you or your family members have other risk factors for cerebral aneurysms, he says.

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What other risk factors play a part?

Other major risk factors for cerebral aneurysm include high blood pressure and smoking, Mr. Pavlick says.

“Tobacco smoking is horrible,” he says.

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Street drug use also is rapidly becoming an issue, Mr. Pavlick says, especially with drugs like cocaine, because they increase the pressure within the skull.

Poorly controlled diabetes and connective tissue disorders can also contribute to aneurysm formation, he adds. 

Physicians often incidentally find cerebral aneurysms as part of a broader physical examination, Mr. Pavlick says.

“Many times, we’ll have someone who’s having imaging such as a CT, CTA, MRI or MRA due to a headache or a head trauma” and discover an aneurysm, he says.

Not a ‘ticking time bomb’

An aneurysm isn’t an event that suddenly occurs on a given day, Mr. Pavlick says. Aneurysms build over time. They seldom show signs or symptoms unless they press on a nerve, brain structure or blood vessel.

“Most times when somebody says they survived an aneurysm, what they generally mean is that they survived a hemorrhage also known as a subarachnoid hemorrhage,” Mr. Pavlick says. “Their aneurysm has ruptured, broken or leaked.”

When physicians find an unruptured aneurysm, they might decide to do surgery or endovascular repair because the aneurysm appears to have the potential for rupturing.

“Our job is to mitigate the possibility of ruptured aneurysm, which constitutes a hemorrhagic stroke,” Mr. Pavlick says.

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Surgery not always necessary

Then there are people who have aneurysms that never rupture.

“There are people who have lived to 80, 90, 100 years old, and on autopsy they found out the person had one, two, three aneurysms that caused no problems,” Mr. Pavlick says. “Other people have a little tiny aneurysm that ruptures or has the potential to rupture for whatever reason.”

Some patients with aneurysms need reassurance that surgery isn’t always necessary, Mr. Pavlick says. They fear that an aneurysm is a time bomb. But that’s not always true.

“The patient thinks, ‘I have minutes, hours, weeks to live.’ But we review the risk factors and are sometimes able to say we really don’t need to do anything but watch this over the next few months to two, three, five years or longer,” he says.

Steps toward prevention

Even if a family member does have an aneurysm, staying healthy can reduce the chances that you will develop one. There are several steps you can take and lifestyle changes that may be beneficial in preventing an aneurysm:

  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco. If you do, quit. That goes for cigarettes, cigars, pipes and chewing tobacco.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat a balanced, low-fat diet.
  • Get help for alcohol and/or drug abuse.
  • Control your high blood pressure and diabetes.

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