Valvular Heart Disease: A Quiet and Dangerous Disorder

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After years as a Cardiothoracic Surgeon, Jose Torres, MD, is still amazed at the efficiency of the human heart. “The healthy human heart contains four valves that open and close with every heartbeat. This ensures that blood flows through the heart correctly,” said Dr. Torres, Cardiothoracic Surgeon, the James Family Heart Center at Yavapai Regional Medical Center (YRMC) West.

If the valves don’t open enough (stenosis) or they can’t close properly (pulmonary valve insufficiency), the patient may be diagnosed with valvular heart disease. This condition affects up to 3 percent of Americans. People with valvular heart disease may experience shortness of breath and decreased activity levels. However, these changes can be subtle, so many may be unaware they’re experiencing heart problems.

“Valvular heart disease is often diagnosed when a cardiologist detects a murmur – an irregular and often rapid heart rate – during a physical examination,” Dr. Torres said. He emphasized that this “murmur” is not genetic, like other heart murmurs. And while some people may have a genetic predisposition toward valvular heart disease, lifestyle is a major contributing factor to the condition. “People can minimize their risk of developing valvular heart disease by making modifications to their lifestyle,” said Dr. Torres. Those include:

  • Avoiding smoking
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet
  • Exercising regularly

Dr. Torres also noted that some people who have had rheumatic fever may also be prone to developing valvular heart disease. In addition, endocarditis, an infection of the heart, is responsible for a small percentage of cases. People with severe symptoms, or evidence of heart failure, may require surgery to treat their valvular heart disease. In these cases, damaged valves are replaced with a new valves.

There are two types of replacement valves: bioprosthetic and mechanical. “The surgeon’s valve recommendation depends on the patient’s age and situation,” Dr. Torres said. People age 60 and older may receive a bioprosthetic valve (made of animal tissue), which can last approximately 15 to 20 years.

Younger patients may receive a mechanical valve that never needs to be replaced, but requires the patient take a blood thinning medication and undergo weekly blood draws. Valve replacement surgery takes approximately three hours and the patient typically stays in the hospital for four to eight days.

The goal is to get the patient up and moving quickly and to have them start cardiac rehab within a month. “The excellent nurses as YRMC West provide patients with information about smoking cessation, if necessary, as well as about ways they can modify their behavior to improve their health.” In addition to embracing a healthy lifestyle, Dr. Torres recommends a yearly checkup to detect heart-related issues early.

Learn more about the exceptional heart care services at YRMC’s James Family Heart Center.