The No. 1 Risk Factor for Developing a Brain Aneurysm, Doctor Says

Doing one thing increases your likelihood of falling victim to this potentially deadly event.

An aneurysm can occur in many different parts of the body, and so can its symptoms—but they don't always correspond. Back pain, for example, may be a warning sign of an abdominal aneurysm, while coughing may signal the imminent rupture of an aortic aneurysm. Other types of aneurysms don't present with any symptoms at all.

"In most cases, brain aneurysms do not have any symptoms—until they rupture," warns Robert Wicks, MD, co-director of cerebrovascular surgery and director of the neurosurgical anatomy laboratory at Baptist Health's Miami Neuroscience Institute. Since they may occur with no warning at all, the focus on preventing this extremely dangerous, and often fatal, type of aneurysm from occurring is important. Read on to find out the number one risk factor for developing a brain aneurysm, plus the measures you can take to boost your brain health.

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An aneurysm can happen in any blood vessel.

Doctor explaining brain scan to patient.

Many people are familiar with the term "aneurysm" and are aware that it's a potentially deadly condition. But what exactly happens when an aneurysm occurs?

"If you get an aneurysm, it means you have a bulge in the wall of an artery," explains WebMD. "It happens when the pressure of blood passing through has forced a weakened part of the artery to balloon outward or when the blood vessel wall is weakened for a different reason."

This can occur in any blood vessel, but WebMD reports that aneurysms frequently happen in the arteries that supply the brain, and parts of the aorta (the artery that ferries blood from the heart). "Aneurysms there are serious, while those in other areas, such as your leg, can be less hazardous," says the site. "The most serious threat of an aneurysm is that it will burst and cause a stroke or massive bleeding, which can be life-threatening." In addition, WebMD notes that aneurysms can lead to blood clots.

If you're having trouble imagining what a brain aneurysm looks like, the Mayo Clinic describes the bulge on the blood vessel as often looking like "a berry hanging on a stem."

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Brain aneurysms can exist, undetected, for a long time.

Woman sitting on couch with a headache.
Kateryna Onyshchuk

One in 50 people actually have a brain aneurysm that hasn't ruptured—and many of them aren't aware of it, says the Mayo Clinic. "Most unruptured aneurysms are asymptomatic and go undetected," the site says, unless they've grown large enough to press against brain tissue or nerves.

"In a small percentage of cases, aneurysms can present warning symptoms such as new double vision or sudden onset of severe headache several days or weeks before an aneurysm ruptures," advises Wicks. "Those are two of the most common ways that patients who have an unruptured brain aneurysm may present with symptoms of an aneurysm that's growing, or changing."

A headache caused by a ruptured aneurysm is frequently described by patients as "the worst headache of their life," says Wicks. "The headache occurs due to a rapid increase in pressure, in and around the brain." Wicks describes other potential symptoms of a brain aneurysm as "nausea, vomiting, seizure, and a depression of consciousness."

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These factors can contribute to the risk of a brain aneurysm.

Doctor and radiologist discuss scans while patient undergoes MRI.

According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, various factors may contribute to the risk of developing a brain aneurysm. "Some people may have inherited a tendency for weak blood vessels, which may lead to the development of aneurysms," says the Foundation, which adds that head trauma or infection may lead to an aneurysm. Aneurysms in children are rare, and most aneurysms probably develop as a result of wear and tear on the arteries throughout a person's lifetime. Occasionally, severe head trauma or infection may lead to the development of an aneurysm.

"There are a number of risk factors that contribute to the formation of aneurysms," cautions the Foundation. These include hypertension, drug or alcohol use—and one other thing, which has multiple negative repercussions for your health.

Smoking cigarettes is linked to multiple aneurysms. 

Person holding burning cigarette in hand with ashtray.

Smoking cigarettes is a significant risk factor for brain aneurysms, and a may in fact be the number-one preventable cause of the potentially deadly event.

"While I don't think you can say that smoking definitely causes rupture of aneurysms, it's definitely a factor very closely related," Satish Krishnamurthy, MD told WebMD. Krishnamurthy was the lead author of a study which surveyed 275 people with aneurysms and found that "72 percent of all aneurysm patients were smokers, and 40 percent had high blood pressure," reports WebMD. "Of those with ruptured aneurysms, 58 percent had hypertension, and 71 percent smoked."

In addition, there was a possible link between smoking and having multiple aneurysms. Krishnamurthy told WebMD that of the 67 people who had several aneurysms, 75 percent had a history of smoking. The study found that "smoking not only created the rupture, but also created the aneurysm," revealed Krishnamurthy. Research shows that smoking can cause weak spots in the brain's blood vessels. "These weak spots can rupture and cause bleeding that can lead to stroke, disability, and death," says WebMD. And of course, smoking has many other extremely serious health ramifications. "The basic message is that smoking is bad," warned Krishnamurthy.

If you smoke, speak with your healthcare provider about strategies that can help you stop.

Luisa Colón
Luisa Colón is a writer, editor, and consultant based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Latina, and many more. Read more
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