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The largest artery in your body, the aorta, is like the major highway for blood flow -- beginning after the blood leaves the left ventricle (your heart's main pumping chamber) and branching off into smaller vessels that supply every tissue and organ in your body. In other words, the aorta is one of your major lifelines.
With the constant traffic of blood flow, the walls of the aorta can become weakened in spots, causing portions to bulge outward like a balloon -- a condition known as an aneurysm. Often, aneurysms are too small to be life threatening, but some swell to the point where they are likely to rupture.
When an aneurysm ruptures, it causes internal bleeding that requires prompt surgical repair. Unfortunately, most individuals die before reaching the hospital.
- An estimated 1.5 million Americans have an aneurysm in the aorta. Aneurysms can arise in the part of the aorta that runs through the chest, but most occur in the section that passes through the abdomen. About 4 to 9% of people older than age 60 have an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysms kill 15,000 to 30,000 Americans each year, a figure that is low compared with the number of deaths from complications of coronary heart disease (CHD), such as heart attacks, which kill nearly 500,000 Americans annually.
But the odds of surviving an abdominal aortic aneurysm rupture are quite low. Approximately two thirds of victims die before reaching the hospital. Of those who do get to the emergency department, about half die nevertheless. This situation makes it vital to control any risk factors you have for developing an abdominal aortic aneurysm and, if possible, to identify the presence of an abdominal aortic aneurysm early.
Are you at risk? Older age is one of the main risk factors for aortic aneurysms -- about three quarters of abdominal aortic aneurysms arise after age 60. Gender and heredity also play a role. Men have a four to five times greater risk than women, and people with a family history of abdominal aortic aneurysms also are at heightened risk.
Although you cannot change these risk factors, you can control several others, including smoking. Smoking is not only a major risk factor for development of an abdominal aortic aneurysm but also raises the likelihood that an aneurysm will enlarge and rupture, possibly because smoking triggers inflammation in blood vessels. Other risk factors for abdominal aortic aneurysm -- CHD, uncontrolled high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels -- all can damage the lining of the aorta and contribute to aortic aneurysm formation.