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Heart Valve Disease

The prevalence of heart valve disease is increasing so steadily that an article in the journal Heart called it “the next cardiac epidemic.” Already, more than 13 percent of Americans older than 75 have heart valve disease.

So what exactly is heart valve disease? It occurs when any of the heart’s valves do not work the way they should. The heart has four valves — tricuspid, pulmonary, mitral and aortic — and they all have flaps of tissue that open and close when the heart beats to ensure blood flows in the right direction. Some people are born with heart valve disease — in which cases, it’s called congenital heart valve disease — and others acquire it because of advanced age, infection or other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

“The aortic and mitral valves are the two that most commonly become diseased,” said Charles C. Canver, M.D., FACS, a Lake Regional cardiovascular-thoracic surgeon. “They can close off because of calcium buildup, which means needed blood cannot go forward. Or, the valves can become leaky, causing blood to go backward, leading to dangerous pooling in the lungs and lower legs.”

Untreated heart valve disease can lead to heart failure and death, so diagnosis is imperative. The main sign of the disease is a heart murmur, a symptom your doctor can discover by listening to your heart with a stethoscope. Other signs include unusual fatigue; shortness of breath, particularly with exertion or lying down; swelling in the lower extremities, abdomen or veins in the neck; angina; and dizziness or fainting.

Treatment of Heart Valve Disease

Medications are available to treat the symptoms of heart valve disease and can be effective for many years. But the only cure, currently, for the disease is surgery to repair or replace a heart valve. Heart valve repair is preferable because it is better tolerated than replacement, but it’s not an option in many cases, including with valve disease of the aortic and pulmonary valves.

“Despite the big word ‘surgery,’ valve replacement surgery is generally safe,” Dr. Canver said. “It can extend a patient’s life many years.”