Valvular heart disease or heart valve disease is a rare but serious condition that can be seen in all age groups but is more common in older adults. It is estimated that 13 percent of all people born before 1943 have valvular heart disease. In this article, we discuss the most common heart valve disease symptoms and risk factors.
The functions and normal anatomy of heart valves
The normal human heart has four valves that separate the chambers of the heart, as well as the ventricles from the aorta and pulmonary artery. These valves ensure that as the heart contracts, blood moves forward instead of flowing back to the previous chamber or blood vessel.
Heart valves are made out of strong, thin flaps of tissue called leaflets or cusps, which (when healthy) allow blood to only flow in one direction. There are structures within the heart that offer support to the tricuspid and mitral valves, such as the chordae tendineae and papillary muscles. The chordae tendineae is a strong fibrous string that attaches to the valves, allowing them to endure high levels of pressure when preventing the backflow of blood.
The other end of these chordae tendineae are attached to what we call papillary muscles, which are found on the inside of the ventricles and contract when resisting the backflow of blood to the atria.
Below is a brief elaboration of each valve’s location:
- Mitral Valve – Found on the left side of the heart, separating the left atrium from the left ventricle. Interestingly, this valve only contains 2 leaflets, while the other valves have 3.
- Tricuspid Valve – Located between the right ventricle and right atrium.
- Pulmonic Valve – Located between the pulmonary artery and right ventricle.
- Aortic Valve – Located between the left ventricle and the aorta.
Heart valve disease occurs when one or more of the heart valves fail to function normally. There are 3 types of alterations that occur in the heart valves:
Stenosis. This refers to a flap that has thickened, stiffened, or fused together. Because of this, the flap is no longer able to open completely, resulting in decreased blood flow to the chamber below the affected valve.
Regurgitation. This is the backflow of blood and occurs when a valve does not close completely, allowing blood to leak back into the previous or upper chamber in relation to the affected valve. This is commonly due to a flap that bulges back into the upper heart chamber (atria), a condition known as a heart valve prolapse.
Atresia. This is a congenital condition where there is no opening between the chambers of the heart.
Valvular heart disease may be caused by age-related changes, infections, birth defects, or other conditions, and can ultimately alter the ability of your heart to pump blood throughout your body. It should be noted that congenital heart valve disease commonly involves the pulmonary or aortic valves, while acquired heart valve disease usually affects the mitral or aortic valves.
Heart valve disease symptoms
Patients with heart valve disease may be asymptomatic and the condition may not cause any problems throughout their lifespan. However, other patients’ conditions may worsen and slowly develop symptoms. If not treated, heart valve disease may lead to stroke, heart failure, thrombus formation, or sudden cardiac arrest.
The major signs and symptoms of heart valve disease are listed below:
- Heart murmur – an unusual heartbeat sound
- Unusually fatigued or tired
- Edema (swelling) of the legs, feet, ankles, abdomen, and jugular veins (veins of the neck)
Non-specific signs and symptoms include:
- Chest pain upon exertion
- A noticeable irregular, fluttering, or racing heartbeat
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
Heart valve disease risk factors
Risk factors for developing heart valve disease include:
- Old age
- Medical history of:
- High serum cholesterol levels
- Being overweight or obese
- Physical inactivity
As mentioned earlier, heart valve disease may also be a congenital condition, meaning that people may be born with the condition. Among this group of patients, there are those born with bicuspid/ bicommissural aortic valve, a condition where there is a fusion of 2 of the 3 aortic valves. These patients are at particular risk for developing aortic heart valve disease in the future.
Prevention of heart valve disease
Currently, there is no sure way to prevent the development of heart valve disease. However, there are studies that state that heart-healthy diets, and cholesterol-lowering medications may aid in preventing the development of aortic stenosis. The following are other practices that may help in preventing the development of heart valve disease:
- Regular physical activity
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Stress management
- Cessation of smoking
- Getting enough quality sleep
- Diet modification (increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables and avoiding saturated and trans fats and high sugar food)
- Monitoring blood pressure and cholesterol levels
Identifying heart valve disease symptoms and risk factors is also an important part of lowering your risk of developing a serious case of this condition.
Treatment of heart valve disease
Medications that lower blood pressure, prevent the occurrence of arrhythmias, thin blood, prevent the development of blood clots, treat coronary heart disease, and treat heart failure may be provided to patients on a case-to-case basis.
Surgical intervention may be recommended to all patients with heart valve disease to replace or repair of these defects, as this can prevent permanent damage to the heart. This may be an option to patients based on their age, general health, and severity of the valve disease.
Valvular heart disease is a rare but serious condition. It alters the function of the heart valves and can obstructs the amount of blood that moves through the heart. A heart-healthy lifestyle and some medications for comorbid conditions may aid in lowering your risk of heart valve disease. Part of avoiding or detecting this condition early is knowing the heart valve disease symptoms and risk factors.
Learn more about Heart Valve Disease here.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.