On February 22, 2018, National Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day will shed light on a condition that affects seniors more than any other age group. The month of February is typically devoted to heart disease, and awareness of heart valve disease often gets overshadowed. However, nearly 5 million American suffer from heart valve disease, whose severity can range from a manageable condition the doctor wants to monitor, to a life-threatening illness. About 22,000 people each year die from this treatable condition. Caregivers, home care aides and seniors should take the opportunity this month to learn the symptoms of heart valve disease, because early detection and treatment can save lives.

What is Heart Valve Disease?

Heart valve disease (HVD) is a malfunction of one or more valves of the heart. As we all know, the heart is a muscle which pushes blood through the entire body, beat after beat after beat. Blood flows in one direction, from chamber to chamber, and out into the body through two major blood vessels. Each transition, between chambers and from chamber to vessels, is guarded by a valve, which keeps the blood from returning to the chamber it just left. The valves protect the heart against ‘wrong-way blood’ and maintain the pressure each chamber needs to move the blood along at the right speed. Valves malfunction in one of two ways. Regurgitation, insufficiency or, prosaically, leaky valve occurs when a valve doesn’t close completely and lets blood flow backwards. Stiff, narrowed, or stenotic valves don’t open wide enough, which constricts the blood flow. Valves can regurgitate and be stenotic at the same time, and all four valves can experience these issues, though it’s the aortic and mitral valves that are most commonly affected. The longer we live, the longer our heart has been beating, and the more vulnerable it is to damage and breakdown.

What are the symptoms of Heart Valve Disease?

Depending on the degree of malfunction, heart valve disease can be debilitating, or even deadly, because the heart must work harder than it should to move the right volume of blood through the body at the right pace. It’s possible to have HVD and not be aware of it, because the symptoms can be subtle. And many of the common indicators can appear to be simple ‘old age’, or symptoms of other conditions. If you or your loved one are often out of breath in a non-marathon context, experience swollen ankles or feet, or are just crazy tired all the time, failing heart valves may be the problem. Clearer signs of trouble include weakness, dizziness, or fainting, irregular or rapid heartbeat, swollen abdomen, pain or tightness in the chest and a heart murmur.

How do you get Heart Valve Disease?

People of any age can develop HVD, though is it most common in seniors. Studies estimate that 12.5% of all people over 75 have moderate to severe valve damage. The main causes of HVD range from:

  • Congenital heart disease, when an infant is born with an abnormal valve or valves
  • Rheumatic fever, a serious complication of strep or scarlet fever
  • Endocarditis, an infection of the heart
  • Cardiomyopathy, a group of diseases that damage the heart
  • Residual damage to the heart muscle after a heart attack
  • And just getting older

How do they treat Heart Valve Disease?

Medication such as ACE inhibitors, anti-arrhythmic medications, antibiotics, anticoagulants, beta-blockers, diuretics, and vasodilators can treat mild HVD by addressing some of the symptoms, temporarily. But the long-term remedy is to fix the misfiring valve itself. There are two options, according to Heart.org:

  1. Valve repair — which preserves the patient’s valve and leaflets. Sometimes repairs require a minimal surgery procedure and other times repairs need a more extensive surgery. Repair is most often possible for mitral valve regurgitation and tricuspid valve regurgitation.
  2. Valve replacement — which may include TAVR (or TAVI) or other minimally invasive procedure. In many cases, the best long-term solution may require a more involved surgery such as the Ross procedure or the insertion of a new tissue or manufactured valve.”

Heart valve disease is progressive, so ignoring the signs and neglecting treatment will eventually cause your heart to fail you completely. Treatment that restores the natural function of the valve can restore health, vigor, and energy, too. Caregivers and seniors can take heart – pun intended – in the treatable nature of heart valve disease and know that early detection is the best way to restore heart health.