February 22, 2018, is National Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day. This observance day is dedicated to raising awareness about heart valve disease (HVD) and its risk factors, symptoms, detection, and treatment.
As many as 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with HVD, which involves damage to one or more of the heart’s valves. While some types are not serious, others can lead to major complications—including death.
Most HVDs involve a damaged valve that disrupts blood flow by not opening or closing properly. Regurgitation is when a valve does not fully close and allows blood to leak backwards. It is also commonly called insufficiency, or a leaky valve. Stenosis is when a valve does not fully open to allow enough blood to flow through. It is also commonly called a sticky, narrowed, or stiff valve. Each of the four valves can have regurgitation or stenosis (sometimes both), although the aortic and mitral valves are most likely to be damaged.
HVD can be there at birth, or develop later in life from calcification, other cardiovascular diseases and conditions, or infection. Age is the greatest risk factor with 1 in 8 people ages 75 and older estimated to have moderate to severe HVD.
When valve damage reduces blood flow, the heart has to work harder and the body gets less oxygen—leading to a number of symptoms which can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness or dizziness
- Pain, tightness, or discomfort in the chest
- Fainting or feeling faint
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Decrease in exercise capacity
- Swollen abdomen or ankles and feet
However, people with HVD do not always have symptoms, even if their disease is severe. For these people, a heart murmur is the most important clue.
Each year, an estimated 22,000 people in the US die from HVD. For patients with severe aortic stenosis, their survival rate is as low as 50% at 2 years after the onset of symptoms and 20% at 5 years. Fortunately, valve disease can usually be successfully treated with valve repair and replacement in patients of all ages.
The Alliance for Aging Research, who sponsors National Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day, reports that a recent survey of more than 2,000 adults in the US found that while over half have heard of HVD, less than one in four know somewhat or a great deal about HVD. Although awareness increases with age, 30% of respondents over the age of 65 say they know nothing about HVD.
The seriousness of HVD, combined with the fact that disease symptoms are often difficult to detect or dismissed as a normal part of aging, makes this lack of awareness dangerous.
The goal of National Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day is to increase recognition of the specific risks and symptoms of HVD in order to improve detection and treatment—and ultimately save lives.