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Grant Wahl’s Sudden Death Shows How Aortic Aneurysm Can Be a Silent Killer

December 20, 2022

In the days leading up to his death, 49-year-old journalist Grant Wahl complained of chest pressure and cold symptoms. He was being treated for bronchitis when he died suddenly from an undetected ascending aortic aneurysm while covering the World Cup in Qatar. But were Wahl's symptoms actually signs of an aortic aneurysm? Akhilesh Jain, MD, vascular surgeon at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, discusses aortic aneurysms and the risk factors you should know.

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Aortic aneurysms can suddenly turn deadly.

“If we think of our heart as the main pump in our body, then the aorta is the main hose supplying blood to our body. Sometimes, the aortic wall weakens and balloons up, which is known as aortic aneurysm,” says Dr. Jain. An aortic aneurysm can be located in the chest (as in Wahl's case), abdomen, or both. “Aortic aneurysms can keep growing in the background and suddenly rupture, leading to a fatal event."

A silent killer

What makes aortic aneurysms so deadly is that most people don't experience any symptoms. It's often called a silent killer, says Dr. Jain. Some signs you can watch out for include:
  • Back pain
  • Cough
  • Hoarse voice
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or tenderness
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Individuals with risk factors should schedule a screening.

Because aortic aneurysms often have no obvious symptoms, it's important that high-risk individuals are screened, including people who are:
  • 65 to 75 years with a history of smoking or a family history of aortic aneurysms.
  • Older than 75 with a history of smoking that haven't yet had a screening.
  • Any age but have connective tissue disorders, including Marfan syndrome or Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
Wahl's brother, Eric implied that Wahl may have suffered from Marfan syndrome in a recent tweet. In the message, he encouraged "tall, lanky guys with long arm-spans" and "long, narrow fingers" - tell-tale signs of Marfan syndrome - to schedule a heart check-up.

Treatment options

When detected early, doctors can repair aortic aneurysms before they rupture. Doctors often use minimally invasive techniques that "reline" the artery from the inside, says Dr. Jain. Some patients may require open surgical repair that involves removal and replacement of the affected part of the aorta.