Aortic disease kills more than 15,000 people every year in the United States. Here’s what you need to know about this deadly ailment.

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Actress Amy Yasbeck travels the country speaking about the dangers of thoracic aortic disease, the ailment that killed her husband John Ritter in 2003. Photo courtesy of The John Ritter Foundation

It’s been 15 years since actor John Ritter died suddenly while rehearsing on a television production set.

That passage of time, however, hasn’t slowed the passion or commitment his widow, actress Amy Yasbeck, has for trying to raise awareness for the silent and mostly unknown disease that killed her husband.

Yasbeck spoke last week to Healthline employees about thoracic aortic disease and what the John Ritter Foundation is doing to raise money for research as well as educate people about the potentially deadly ailment.

She was joined at the Healthline offices by Deanna Korondi, whose husband of 28 years died last year of an aortic dissection.

The women spoke tearfully of their sudden loss and the need for people to understand the disease as well as the importance of knowing your family history and the most effective medical exams to diagnose the disease.

“It’s just a time bomb,” said Korondi. “It’s not even ticking.”

Your aorta is the main vessel that transports blood away from the heart and sends it to the rest of your body.

It’s shaped like a candy cane and is about the width of a garden hose.

An aortic aneurysm is when there’s a widening or a ballooning pushing out of the aorta. This usually happens at a weak spot in the aortic wall.

This condition can lead to an aortic dissection, which is a tear in the aortic wall that causes blood to flow within the layers of the aorta.

An aortic rupture happens when the aortic wall tears open completely.

In a dissection or rupture, the amount of oxygen and nutrients available to the body’s organs decreases.

There are three types of aortic aneurysms. A thoracic aortic aneurysm involves the ascending aorta, arch, or descending aorta.

Aortic aneurysms are the 13th leading cause of death in the United States. They cause an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 deaths a year.

Ritter died at the age of 54 on September 11, 2003 from an undiagnosed aortic dissection.

Ritter, best known for his role as Jack Tripper on the 1970s hit television series “Three’s Company,” was rehearsing that day for his new TV show, “8 Simple Rules.”

He didn’t feel well and was taken to a nearby medical center.

Yasbeck said medical professionals misdiagnosed her husband’s condition as a heart attack, a common occurrence with aortic dissections.

Among other things, they gave Ritter blood thinners, a type of medication that shouldn’t be given to someone with internal bleeding.

Ritter died later that evening.

Within weeks of his death, Yasbeck formed the John Ritter Foundation and made it her mission to prevent this tragedy from striking other families.

“When aortic dissection is confused with heart disease, it’s fatal,” Yasbeck told Healthline.

The John Ritter Foundation has a list of “Ritter Rules” that can help people recognize aortic disease.

They note that pain is the number one symptom. The discomfort is usually sudden and strikes the chest, back, neck, or stomach. The pain is usually sharp and people feel there’s something seriously wrong.

The foundation stresses that aortic dissection is a medical emergency. The risk of death rises by 1 percent every hour that diagnosis and surgical repair are delayed.

The foundation also notes that there are only three types of imaging that can properly diagnose an aortic aneurysm or aortic dissection.

They include a CT scan, an MRI, and a transesophageal echocardiogram. A chest X-ray or EKG won’t necessarily spot aortic problems.

A family history of aortic disease puts you at higher risk. There are certain genetic components that can affect connective tissue.

The foundation urges people with potential genetic risks to get tested for aortic disease.

There are also lifestyle and traumatic events that can increase your risk. Among them: an injury to the chest area, drug use, and poorly controlled high blood pressure.

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Actress Amy Yasbeck wants families to know the symptoms of thoracic aortic disease, which kills an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people in the United States every year. Photo courtesy of The John Ritter Foundation

Yasbeck, whose credits include the television show “Wings” and the movie “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” travels the country, speaking to medical professionals, families, and others about the disease.

She says she tries to inform people without frightening them.

“I try to be specific and real about the risk,” she said.

The foundation also raises money for research and awareness campaigns.

Korondi is part of a “Team Ritter” group that’s participating in the New York City marathon on November 4 to raise funds.

Yasbeck says her traveling campaign is meant to touch families, so they don’t suffer through what she and Korondi have experienced.

“When you talk to people, you’re talking about their families,” she said.

For her personally, the work of the John Ritter Foundation keeps her connected to her late husband.

“I share his world with others,” said Yasbeck, “and that allows me to never run out of him.”