Heart valve disease affects an estimated 8.7 to 11.6 million Americans. When valve problems occur, they usually involve regurgitation or backflow when a valve doesn’t close tightly or stenosis, which is the tightening of a valve, not allowing it to fully open, thereby increasing the work the heart has to perform in order to pump the blood through the valve. Heart valve disease can involve one valve or several in combination, but the aortic and mitral valves are the ones most frequently affected.
Heart Valve Disease Needs to be Addressed Immediately
Your heart is comprised of four separate valves that work in beautiful synchronicity to keep the blood that flows through the organ moving in the right direction. In patients with heart valve disease, one or more of those precious valves doesn’t work properly, which means the affected valve doesn’t open and close when it needs to, which means the blood flow to your body will be disrupted. This can lead to sudden heart attacks or cause other serious issues involving the heart that can be fatal. Even if you have heart valve disease, you might not experience symptoms for many, many years (which is a good reason to start taking care of your heart now), but patients who present with symptoms will likely experience:
- Swelling of the feet and ankles
- Heart murmur
- Irregular heartbeats
- Shortness of breath
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, see your doctor right away. Immediate intervention is key to long-term health – especially when it comes to your heart.
Heart valve disease is a lifelong condition, but if it’s caught early and properly addressed and maintained, a patient can live a long and healthy life with the condition. Depending on the level of damage your valves have sustained and the amount of stress your heart is under, your physician will likely try conservative methods like medication and lifestyle changes before invasive options. Medications might be prescribed to lower blood pressure or cholesterol, thin the blood, prevent irregular heartbeats, or treat coronary heart disease. These will likely be paired with healthy lifestyle change suggestions – such as eating healthy – to see what kind of effect they’ll have. If the damage is severe, it might be necessary to surgically repair or replace the damaged valves.
Preventing Heart Valve Disease
To prevent heart valve disease, I find that it’s helpful to know what causes it to begin with. High blood pressure, heart failure, atherosclerosis, rheumatic fever – which is basically untreated strep throat – or blood infections can all weaken the heart and damage the valves. Other conditions linked to heart valve disease are autoimmune disorders, metabolic disorders, carcinoid syndrome, certain diet medications, and radiation therapy.
Keeping this in mind, the best way to prevent heart valve disease is to maintain a heart-healthy lifestyle. Keep your weight in check with a diet of lean meat, healthy fats, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Drink water and no-sugar-added juices instead of sugary drinks and alcohol. Don’t smoke, get adequate sleep, try to maintain a healthy level of stress, and make sure you’re exercising. Try to get your heart rate up at least 20 minutes per day by walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, or any other cardio exercise that works for you.
Dr. Massumi is a board-certified physician who specializes in Cardiology at Kelsey-Seybold’s Berthelsen Main Campus. His clinical interests include coronary artery disease, structural heart disease, abdominal aortic aneurysm repair, peripheral vascular disease, and advanced mechanical circulatory support.