Heart Valve Disease: How healthy is your heart?
[6 MIN READ]
In this article:
Feb. 22 is Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day, so we’re giving you the facts you need to protect your heart.
Heart valve disease is damage to one or more of the heart’s valves. Without treatment, it can lead to a more severe heart condition, such as a stroke or heart failure.
Doctors can often hear changes in your heart at annual wellness checkups that can indicate heart valve disease. The earlier you start treatment, the better, so don’t delay care.
It’s 8 a. m. And Barbara, who just celebrated her 86th birthday, is out for her daily stroll. She tries to walk at least a mile every day. Lately, though, walking has gotten harder. Every time she breathes in, she can’t seem to get enough air. And she feels exhausted, even after short walks. Barbara assumes it’s just part of getting older.
At a routine checkup, Barbara’s doctor listens to her heart with a stethoscope and notices an unusual sound. After she has heart scans in the cardiology department, her doctor determines that Barbara has heart valve disease. The aortic valve in her heart has started to narrow.
Barbara’s condition is not uncommon. More than 11 million Americans have some form of heart valve disease, and around 25,000 people die from heart valve disease every year. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t know anything about this heart condition. That’s why in February, researchers, health professionals and advocates aim to increase awareness. February 22 is Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day.
In honor of this day, we’re here to get you up to speed on heart valve disease, so you can know the warning signs and take action to protect your heart.
You can also check out our heart month resources, a curated list of podcasts, videos and articles about protecting your heart health.
What is heart valve disease?
Heart valve disease is damage to one or more of the heart’s valves. To really understand what this means, it’s helpful to know the basics of how the heart works.
The heart is an organ that moves blood and oxygen throughout the body – to and from the lungs and to and from other organs. There are four chambers, or spaces, in the heart. Each chamber is separated by a valve. Heart valves are like doors that open and close at the right time to help blood pass through the heart. They also prevent blood from flowing in the wrong direction. The heart has four types of valves:
- Aortic valve
- Mitral valve
- Pulmonic valve
- Tricuspid valve
Source: National Institutes of Health
With heart valve disease, one or more of the heart’s valves doesn’t work properly. The main types of heart valve disease include:
- Atresia – The valve is missing or isn’t formed fully
- Prolapse – The valve is weak and doesn’t close all the way
- Regurgitation – The valve is leaky, meaning blood flows in the wrong direction
- Stenosis – The valve doesn’t let enough blood through because it either doesn’t open all the way or is stuck shut
Barbara’s doctor diagnoses her with aortic stenosis. The walls of her aortic valve have narrowed and hardened. This means Barbara’s heart must work harder to pump blood. Her body is also not getting as much oxygenated blood as it should.
Other common heart valve disease conditions include mitral regurgitation, mitral stenosis and aortic regurgitation. Some conditions are more severe than others. Without proper treatment, most types of heart valve disease can lead to more severe heart conditions, such as stroke, congestive heart failure, clotting or death.
Resource: The American Heart Association has an Interactive Cardiovascular Library. View your heart valves in action and what they look like with heart valve disease.
What causes heart valve disease?
There is no single cause of heart valve disease, but there are some risk factors that may make you more likely to develop it:
- Age – The older you get (age 65+), the more likely parts of your heart can break down, including the valves. You may also get calcium buildup on the valve over time, which can make it stiffer. Heart valve disease isn’t as common as a condition like high blood pressure, but it’s becoming more common as people live longer.
- Previous conditions – If you’re born with a heart defect (also called congenital heart disease), you may be more likely to develop heart valve disease. Previous heart conditions (for example: heart attack, heart failure) or infections (for example: bacterial endocarditis, rheumatic fever) can also increase your risk, as well as other health conditions.
- Family history – You may develop heart valve disease if an immediate relative (mom, dad, sister, brother) has it. African Americans are also more likely to have heart valve disease based on higher rates of high blood pressure and heart failure.
For Barbara, her heart valve disease isn’t a complete surprise. She’s always had a heart murmur, but it’s never caused her any real problems. She’s also dealt with several bouts of cancer in her lung and brain. Fortunately, with surgery and radiation, she’s now cancer free.
Her doctor thinks the aortic stenosis is likely age-related, but it’s hard to tell. No matter the cause, it’s helpful that Barbara attends her regular checkups where her doctor can listen to her heart.
How do I know if I have heart valve disease? Are there warning signs?
There are some symptoms you may notice if you have heart valve disease. You might think symptoms are caused by aging or not exercising regularly – like Barbara did when she couldn’t catch her breath on walks. But it’s important to pay attention to any changes in ability or overall quality of life. These could be warning signs of heart valve disease.
Heart valve disease symptoms
- Common symptoms of heart valve disease include:
- Feeling dizzy or faint
- Having an irregular heartbeat or chest pain
- Experiencing shortness of breath, even at rest
- Being tired, even after a good night’s sleep
- Noticing swelling in the ankles, feet and/or lower leg
Sometimes with heart valve disease, you won’t have symptoms at all. Or you’ll notice symptoms only during exercise or more strenuous activity since this is when the heart is working more. Either way, it’s important to pay attention to changes in your body. A change can be your biggest warning sign.
Resource: This HVD Symptom Tracker can help.
Your doctor can listen to your heart
Ultimately, the best way to detect heart valve disease is by having your provider listen to your heart. They should do this at regular, annual check-ups, especially if you were born with a heart condition. Your provider can usually hear if your heart doesn’t sound normal and then refer you to a cardiologist.
If your doctor hears something like a heart murmur, which can disrupt normal blood flow, they’ll order other heart screening tests. You may have an echocardiogram (ECHO) or electrocardiogram (ECG). These tests show images of the heart and how it’s functioning in more detail.
What is the treatment for heart valve disease?
The good news is that there are treatments for heart valve disease. But the sooner you begin treatment, the better. Types of treatment depend on the type of heart valve disease you have, how advanced it is and how healthy you are overall.
Some patients may not need to begin treatment right away. Your doctor might instead monitor you to make sure your condition doesn’t get worse. For others, you may need one of these treatments:
- Medication – There isn’t a medicine that cures heart valve disease or even improves it. But medicine can help with your symptoms. As long as your condition doesn’t get worse, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as blood thinners, beta-blockers, antibiotics or other treatment.
- Minimally invasive valve therapies such as TAVR (Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement) and TMVR (Transcatheter Mitral Valve Repair). These procedures are usually performed through small incisions in the groin, allowing patients to avoid open heart surgery.
- Open-heart surgery – If your condition is getting worse, your doctor might recommend surgery to fix or replace your heart valve. With open-heart surgery, your chest is opened, so the surgeon can get to your heart. Recovery can last a while, with restricted activities.
Watch and learn more about the Medtronic Heart Valve Replacement surgery performed at Providence.
Heart disease treatment at Providence
Because of Barbara’s age and previous radiation treatments, she isn’t a great candidate for open-heart surgery – it’s too risky and would likely cause more complications. Barbara ends up working with Brydan Curtis, D.O., an interventional cardiologist at Providence Spokane Cardiology (part of the Providence Spokane Heart Institute), who recommends TAVR instead.
The surgery is a success. Barbara is placed under general anesthesia. A cardiologist and a cardiac surgeon work together to complete TAVR through a small incision in Barbara’s chest.
Barbara becomes the 750th person to undergo a TAVR procedure at the Heart Institute.
Resource: This Providence Heart to Heart Patient Education Guide includes more information about what to expect if you have a heart condition.
Providence Heart Institutes
The Providence health system has three award-winning heart institutes – Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington, the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute in Portland, Oregon and Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. The institutes serve as places of innovation and deliver world-class healthcare to tens of thousands of patients each year.
Patients seeking care at Providence heart institutes will find the latest advancements in diagnosis, research, and treatment and surgery for the heart. Patients also have access to new therapies through clinical research trials, wellness and prevention programs.
Celebrate your heart for Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day
There’s no denying that the heart does a lot for the body. It keeps pumping, moving blood and oxygen without us even thinking about it. There are lots of habits we control that both help and hurt our hearts. But there are also things out of our control – such as aging and regular wear and tear – that can impact the heart. It’s important to pay attention to our bodies and to recognize when something changes. A heart condition should be addressed as soon as possible.
Barbara is happy her doctor caught what she thought was only a regular, age-related problem. Being able to stay active and enjoy her kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren is a big priority. She’s grateful to the cardiology team at Providence for their guidance, flexibility and quick action.
On Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day, try to educate yourself more about heart valve health. There are several resources at valvediseaseday.org. Providence is ready to support you and what you need to have your healthiest heart.
Find a doctor
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.