Earlier this week, Arnold Schwarzenegger had emergency heart valve surgery and also a dear member of our WVMC family underwent valve replacement surgery as well. Every year, about 5 million Americans are diagnosed with heart valve disease and over 100,000 heart valve surgeries take place in the United States.

Many of these people experience no symptoms, but some people with valve disease often feel short of breath with activity or lying down, have swelling in their ankles and feet, feel dizzy or faint, and/or have an irregular heartbeat.

It’s important that we all have a basic understanding of how our valves function, what heart valve disease is, and what we can do about it.

We have four valves in our heart. They open and close with each heartbeat and keep our blood flowing in the right “forward” direction and ensure that there is no backwards leakage.

Sometimes, one or more valves can have problems.

Most commonly, the leaflets of a valve can become stiff or fused and cause the valve to not fully open. This increases the workload on the heart and can lead to heart failure.

Another fairly common heart valve problem is known as valvular insufficiency, also called regurgitation, incompetence, or “leaky valve,” this occurs when a valve does not close tightly. If the valves do not seal, some blood will leak backwards across the valve (WebMD, 2018).

Heart valve disease may also result from congenital birth defects, atresia, endocarditis, rheumatic fever, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and more.

Several factors that increase your risk for developing heart valve disease include aging, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, certain infections, history of heart attack or heart disease, and congenital heart defects.

Often it is discovered upon physical exam when your doctor hears what is called a murmur. A murmur is a swishing sound that is made as blood flows back and forth across a leaky or stenotic valve. There may also be further testing after the initial discovery of the murmur, such as an echocardiogram, to confirm diagnosis.

When your doctor identifies that you have a compromised heart valve, it’s also important to understand that this doesn’t immediately mean you jump to surgery. Your doctor may recommend monitoring the valve if you are not having any symptoms. They may also recommend certain healthy lifestyle changes or taking certain medications. If the valve disease is more advanced, then surgery may be necessary.

There are many types of surgeries that are used to repair heart valves, all the way from open-heart surgery where the patient is put on the heart and lung bypass machine, to minimally invasive heart surgery. Sometimes they can repair the damaged valve, other times they have to replace it.

With so many millions of Americans experiencing heart valve disease, it’s really important that we all share information about what we can do to live healthy lives to give our valves the best chance. The Mayo Clinic (2018) recommends the following:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, poultry, fish and whole grains. Avoid saturated and trans fat, and excess salt and sugar.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight. Aim to keep a healthy weight. If you’re overweight or obese, your doctor may recommend losing weight.
  • Getting regular physical activity. Aim to include about 30 minutes of physical activity, such as brisk walks, into your daily fitness routine.
  • Managing stress. Find ways to help manage your stress, such as through relaxation activities, meditation, physical activity, and spending time with family and friends.
  • Avoiding tobacco. If you smoke, quit. Ask your doctor about resources to help you quit smoking. Joining a support group may be helpful.

Take care of your heart valves and as always, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.