Increased shortness of breath, lack of energy and bouts of dizziness shouldn’t be written off to aging, according to experts at the James Family Heart Center at Dignity Health, Yavapai Regional Medical Center (YRMC).

In recognition of American Heart Month, cardiac specialists from YRMC’s Heart Center are encouraging people of all ages to familiarize themselves with the subtle symptoms of heart valve disease. They also urge people to seek the advice of a physician if they are concerned about their heart health.

An estimated 11 million Americans have heart valve disease, which involves damage to one or more of the heart’s valves. Many people with heart valve disease don’t experience noticeable symptoms until the blood flow is significantly restricted. Symptoms that could signal heart valve disease – and should be discussed with your physician – are:

  • Breathlessness
  • Chest pain, pressure or tightness
  • Fainting
  • Palpitations or a feeling of heavy, pounding, or noticeable heartbeats
  • A decline in your activity level or reduced ability to do normal daily activities

Heart valve disease can affect people in their 40s or 80s, but it’s most prominent in older adults. In fact, one in ten people age 75 and older struggle with moderate to severe heart valve disease. To understand why this happens, it helps to know the role healthy heart valves play in the body.

The heart has four valves with tissue flaps – also called leaflets – that open and close with each heartbeat. The flaps ensure blood flows in the right direction through your heart’s four chambers and to the rest of your body. Think of the leaflets as doors. Normally, the doors are very pliable. They open and close to allow blood to flow through the heart and then to the rest of the body. When the doors calcify, their pliability decreases and the heart has to work harder and harder to pump blood to the body.

Here’s a look at conditions that can cause or contribute to heart valve disease:

  • Past medical history – A history of diabetes or rheumatic fever and cancer survivors treated with radiation therapy to the chest or sternum are at greater risk for heart valve disease.
  • Congenital heart defect – People born with two leaflets, called bicuspid valve, are sometimes diagnosed with heart valve disease in their 40s or 50s.
  • Heart murmur – Calcium buildup or a leaky aortic valve can cause a heart murmur, eventually leading to heart valve disease.

The good news is that heart valve disease is treatable. Medications to lower high blood pressure or high cholesterol may be prescribed. Lifestyle changes – giving up smoking, eating a heart-healthy diet, getting regular physical exercise and aiming for your optimal weight – can slow the progress of heart valve disease.

Heart valve disease is a structural problem that requires surgery. Once there’s a heart valve disease diagnosis, the solution is to remove that roadblock with heart valve surgery.

Many people undergo Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR). The minimally invasive TAVR procedure takes place in YRMC’s Hybrid Operating Suite—a combined state-of-the-art surgical suite and medical imaging facility.

In YRMC’s Hybrid Suite – considered one of the nation’s best – a patient’s heart blockage can be diagnosed and then immediately repaired with a minimally invasive procedure, like TAVR. If the real-time imaging shows the patient requires surgery, YRMC’s heart team is ready to perform the procedure in the Hybrid Operating Suite.

Learn more about the exceptional heart specialists and the advanced, comprehensive treatments available at YRMC’s James Family Heart Center.