The aorta is the largest artery in the body, and an essential part of the circulatory system. It brings oxygenated blood from the left ventricle to the rest of the body.

Any blockage or narrowing in the aorta, or a bulge or dilation, can lead to problems with both heart activity and blood flow throughout the rest of the body. Conditions that affect the aorta include ruptures and aneurysms, which are bulges in the arterial wall.

This article explores the aorta, its structure, and its functions. It also explores some common conditions that affect this large artery and how individuals can keep their aorta healthy.

The aorta is a large artery that transports oxygenated blood away from the heart and to the rest of the body. It is the largest vessel in the body, measuring more than 1 inch wide in some places.

Click on the above BodyMap to interact with a 3D model of the aorta.

The aorta begins at the aortic valve, which separates the aorta from the left ventricle of the heart. The left ventricle is the last chamber that blood travels through as it moves through the heart.

Just above the aortic valve, there are two branches, known as the left main and right coronary arteries. These are responsible for bringing blood to the heart muscle.

From the aortic valve, the aorta moves upward, extending to around the second rib of the ribcage. This part is known as the ascending aorta.

The aorta then arches downwards and to the left. This part is the aortic arch. From here, the aorta travels down the body. This last part is known by doctors as the descending aorta.

The aorta has three layers to its vessel wall:

  • intima (inner layer)
  • media (middle layer)
  • adventitia (outer layer)

The aorta is essential for health because it is the main artery supplying oxygenated blood to the body. Every tissue and organ in the body needs oxygenated blood to stay alive.

As a result, any problem with the aorta – such as a blockage, structural anomaly, or rupture – can put the rest of the body and all organs at risk.

Various conditions can affect the aorta. These include:

  • atherosclerosis, which causes narrowed or hardened arteries or increased risk of stroke
  • vasculitis, which causes inflamed arteries
  • connective tissue disorders, such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS)
  • congenital heart conditions, which are structural differences in the heart or blood vessels a person is born with

One of the most serious conditions that affects the aorta is an aortic aneurysm.

Aortic aneurysm

An aortic aneurysm is a bulge or weak area in the wall of the aorta. Risk factors for aortic aneurysms include:

  • smoking
  • older age
  • uncontrolled high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • family history of aortic aneurysms

Other conditions that affect the aorta, such as atherosclerosis and connective tissue disorders, can also increase the risk.

Doctors may treat aortic aneurysms with medications, surgery, or both. Medications can help lower an individual’s blood pressure, reducing the risk of developing an aortic aneurysm.

If an individual already has an aortic aneurysm, doctors may monitor their symptoms over time, or recommend surgery to replace or repair sections of the aorta affected by the condition.

Doctors subdivide aortic aneurysms into the following categories:

Thoracic aortic aneurysm

Thoracic aortic aneurysms occur in the chest, often as a result of high blood pressure or sudden injury. However, those with connective tissue disorders can also develop a thoracic aortic aneurysm. The symptoms include:

  • sharp, sudden pain in the upper back or chest
  • difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness or fainting

Abdominal aortic aneurysm

Abdominal aortic aneurysms occur below the chest and are more common than thoracic aortic aneurysms. They occur more frequently in males, people over age 65, and in white people more often than Black people.

Abdominal aortic aneurysms are often the result of atherosclerosis, but can also occur due to injury or infection. They often cause no symptoms, but if symptoms do develop, they may include:

  • deep, throbbing pain in the side or back
  • pain in the legs
  • pain in the groin or buttocks

Aortic dissection or rupture

An aortic dissection occurs when blood leaks between the layers of the aortic wall. An aortic rupture breaks through all of the layers entirely. Both are medical emergencies.

The main symptom of aortic dissection is a sharp, stabbing chest pain that begins suddenly, often resembling a heart attack. The pain starts under the chest bone, then can radiate to the back or under the shoulder blades. Pain can also move to the:

  • shoulder
  • arm
  • neck
  • jaw
  • hips
  • abdomen
  • arms or legs

A decrease in blood flow to the rest of the body can also cause:

  • fainting
  • dizziness
  • anxiety
  • clammy skin
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • pale skin
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid, weak pulse

Aortic dissections and ruptures are life-threatening and have a high mortality rate. They are the most common causes of death in people with aortic aneurysms. However, they can also occur in people who do not have aneurysms. The time it takes for a person to undergo surgery can predict the outcome.

High blood pressure and cholesterol can place a strain on the aorta. Below are some of the ways people can reduce the risk of these conditions, and so keep the aorta healthy:

Eat a heart-healthy diet

Cholesterol is necessary for the body to function, but too much of it in the blood can lead to narrowed or blocked arteries. Diet is a critical component in regulating cholesterol levels. A heart-healthy diet includes:

  • plenty of fiber from foods such as whole grains, beans, and legumes
  • lots of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • omega-3 fatty acids, which people can get from oily fish

Avoid foods that are high in salt, dietary cholesterol, or saturated fat.

Quit smoking

Smoking has a lasting effect on heart health, but quitting smoking can dramatically decrease the risk of developing an aortic aneurysm or aortic atherosclerosis.

In comparison to someone who has never smoked, people who quit smoking are twice as likely to develop an aortic aneurysm. However, people who currently smoke are five times as likely to develop one.

Reduce high blood pressure

According to a 2019 meta-analysis, high blood pressure can increase someone’s risk of developing an aortic aneurysm by 66%. Because of this, it is important to keep blood pressure at a normal level.

Some changes that can reduce high blood pressure include:

  • a balanced diet that is low in salt
  • limiting alcohol consumption
  • reducing or learning to manage stress
  • regular physical activity
  • quitting smoking

Doctors can help people learn how to monitor their blood pressure levels at home. If necessary, people can also take medications to control high blood pressure.

Avoid heavy lifting or straining

For people who already have an aortic aneurysm, it is important to avoid activities that place a strain on the aorta. This includes:

  • jobs that involve heavy lifting
  • exercises such as pull ups or push ups or crunches that cause you to hold your breath
  • straining during a bowel movement or urination
  • the Valsalva maneuver, which involves holding the mouth and nose shut while exhaling with moderate force

Learn more about taking care of cardiovascular health.

The aorta is the main artery responsible for transporting oxygenated blood out of the heart and to the rest of the body. It consists of the ascending aorta, the aortic arch, and descending aorta.

Problems with the aorta can be life-threatening. Some examples include aortic aneurysms, which are weakened or bulging parts of the aortic wall. This can lead to rupture or dissection or tearing, which are all medical emergencies.

Following practices that promote heart health can also keep the aorta healthy. This includes following a balanced diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat, as well as quitting smoking, getting regular exercise, and reducing stress.