Bruce Forsyth is a national treasure but, like many 87-year-olds, has an occasional fall. When he had one late last year, it left his face heavily bruised and him badly shaken up but — quite by chance — also saved his life. Subsequent tests to try to find out why he had fallen revealed he had two aneurysms of his major blood vessels that could have burst at any time and killed him.
An aneurysm is an abnormal bulge in the wall of an artery. Normally, the walls of arteries are thick and muscular, allowing them to withstand a large amount of pressure. Occasionally, however, a weak area develops. This allows the pressure within the artery to push outwards, creating a bulge or ballooned area called an ‘aneurysm’.
Aneurysms can form in any blood vessel, but occur most commonly in the aorta, the largest artery in the body that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. In Forsyth’s case, he not only had an aneurysm in the aorta that passes through the middle-to-low abdomen but another in a renal artery to one of his kidneys. The main risk with large aneurysms is if they rupture. Because the artery wall thins at this spot, it is fragile and may burst under stress and this is a catastrophic, life-threatening event.
Aortic aneurysms are usually caused by a number of factors, including atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) which weakens arterial walls, high blood pressure, local injury to the artery and ageing. They usually cause no symptoms at all and many people with them are blissfully unaware anything is wrong until they rupture, and 85 per cent of people who experience this do not even make it to hospital before they die of catastrophic internal bleeding.
Aneurysms become dangerous and more prone to rupture when they are more than 5cm wide, and Forsyth’s luck has really held as his were between 7cm and 8cm wide — levels that would normally have ruptured some time ago in most people. Repairing them typically involves one of two methods. The first is a traditional surgical repair where the aneurysm is cut out and replaced with an artificial graft in its place. This works well for many people, although it carries a fair degree of risk.
But this method is increasingly being replaced by a newer technique called endovascular repair, where open surgery is not required and the procedure is done by passing a tube up one of the leg arteries into the aneurysm and clipping it across it. Reports suggest that this is the type of repair that Sir Bruce had and from which he continues to recover.
Studies have suggested that a routine abdominal aortic ultrasound scan in men aged 65 is worthwhile in helping detect aneurysms, which is why the NHS now has a national screening programme with surgery being offered to men found to have a significantly sized aneurysm, and follow-up scans arranged for those with slightly smaller ones. (Screening is for men as it is far more common in men than in women).
Forsyth has often talked about how much luck he has had in his life and how it has kept him in the public eye for so long. He may now realise just how close he was to that luck running out.