Who is at risk for heart valve disease?
Although the population of people affected by heart valve disease is considerably smaller than the number of people who have the more common conditions, like high blood pressure and coronary artery disease, valvular disease has become an increasing problem in recent years due to the increase in life expectancy.
Valve disease and age
Heart valve disease is more common among older people. Today, thanks to improved quality of medical care and increased attention on prevention, people are living longer. As a result, heart valve disease has become a more common problem. As we age, our heart valves can become lined with calcium deposits that cause the valve flaps to thicken and become stiffer.
Valve disease and related health conditions
People who have had rheumatic fever (PDF) or a case of infective endocarditis are at greater risk for heart valve problems. Heart problems like a heart attack, heart failure, arrhythmia, or previous heart valve conditions from birth (called congenital heart defects) can also increase the likelihood for developing valve problems. Additionally, survivors of childhood cancer who had mediastinal radiation therapy (radiation to the chest) for their cancer have an increased prevalence of heart valve disease later in life.
Valve disease and health risks
Many people live long and healthy lives and never realize they have a mild valve problem. However, valve disease can seriously increase a person's risk for sudden death or cause rapid development of problems in and around the heart that can become fatal without treatment.
People who have been diagnosed with a heart murmur, a defect like a bicuspid aortic valve, mitral valve prolapse or a mild form of valve disease should maintain regular check-ins with a healthcare provider and should be aware of possible symptoms should they start or become worse.
If surgery is needed to repair or replace a valve, antibiotics might be needed before dental procedures to help protect against endocarditis. You should discuss your individual risk and the recommendations with your doctor.
Aging people should also be aware of changes that may come on very gradually. Not all declines in energy or stamina are related to “the normal problems of getting older.” When the heart fails to pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the body, symptoms may appear. Problems like fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort and lightheadedness can indicate treatable problems related to the heart.
Do you notice that routine activities like walking faster or taking the stairs have become more difficult?
Have you stopped doing enjoyable activities that you used to do with relative ease?
Be sure to take notes on any changes like these and describe them to your healthcare provider.