A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Valvular heart disease on the rise

woman with valvular heart disease looking at her flowers

As Americans continue to live longer so does the risk of developing valvular heart disease as valves age.

As Americans continue to live longer so does the risk of developing valvular heart disease as valves age.

Much like wear and tear of a vehicle’s part or a home’s structure, regular checkups and sometimes repairs are necessary.

According to Dr. Elvis Peter, a Marshfield Clinic Health System interventional cardiologist, valvular heart disease is more common as patients are living longer.

“There are many causes of valvular heart disease, but the most common in the United States is secondary to aging as well as a condition called bicuspid aortic valve that causes the valve to degenerate quicker,” Dr. Peter said. “With the increasing life expectancy these conditions – which in a way are wear and tear problems – are becoming more prevalent.”

What is valvular heart disease?

Heart valves open and close to regulate the flow of blood through the heart. Valvular heart disease occurs when any valve of the heart becomes damaged or diseased such as aortic stenosis or mitral regurgitation.

“When the valves become narrowed or tight it is called stenosis or if they become leaky it is called regurgitation,” Dr. Peter said. “The most common conditions that cause significant problems are stenosis of the aortic valve through which blood is pumped out of the heart to the rest of the body or regurgitation of the mitral valve through which blood enters the main pumping chamber of the heart from the lungs through a chamber called the left atrium.”

Valvular heart disease can be caused by congenital conditions, infections or simply due to wearing down. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9.8% of people age 80 to 89 will develop aortic stenosis.

Symptoms and treatment

Symptoms of valvular heart disease include fatigue, dizziness, irregular heartbeat and shortness of breath with activity. As the disease progresses, additional symptoms include leg swelling, being short of breath while lying down and waking up with severe shortness of breath. In severe cases, chest pain with activity or passing out can occur.

Treatment can vary depending on severity. If medication is not enough, repairing the heart valves may be required.

“In the past these valves could only be fixed with open heart surgery. Over the last few decades, advances in technology and medicine have allowed doctors to replace the aortic valve without open heart surgery,” Dr. Peter said.

Those developments include transcatheter aortic valve replacements (TAVR) and MitraClip procedures, which are less invasive. TAVR is used when patients are suffering from a narrowing of the aortic valve opening (aortic stenosis) of the heart as an alternative to surgery. The MitraClip valve procedure accesses the mitral valve with a catheter that is guided through a vein in the leg to reach the heart. MitraClip is an option for those who are not candidates for open heart surgery. Ultimately, the patient’s heart care team will determine if a less invasive procedure or surgery is warranted.

“These advances come at a time when both of these conditions are seeing an increase in the number of people affected,” Dr. Peter said.

Preventing valvular heart disease

There are no clear ways to prevent valvular heart disease so early detection and monitoring are key, said Dr. Peter.

“Maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle to prevent coronary artery disease, which can accompany some of these conditions and is common as we grow older, is important as coronary artery disease remains the number one cause of death,” Dr. Peter said.

If you are having symptoms described above, reach out to your Primary Care provider to schedule an appointment.

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