Heart valve disease occurs when a heart valve narrows, blocking the flow of blood from your heart to your body, or the valve leaks because it does not close tightly. Eventually, valve disease limits how much blood the heart can pump. Over time, the heart muscle can weaken and if left untreated, the risk of death and the need for hospitalization increases.
The risk of heart valve disease increases with age. “As the population ages, it has become more and more of a population health urgency,’’ says UCHealth cardiac surgeon Dr. Peter Walinsky, who replaces heart valves at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central.
Below are questions to ask your doctor about screening for heart valve disease after age 65.
1. Can you check for a heart murmur?
Your doctor will ask questions about your medical history and signs and symptoms. During a physical exam, ask your doctor to check for a heart murmur, which may indicate aortic stenosis.
2. Will you order an echocardiogram if you detect a murmur?
An echocardiogram is an ultrasound test that shows the movement of your heart. During the test, a hand-held wand is held on your chest. The ultrasound creates pictures of the heart’s valves and chambers, allowing a physician to evaluate the pumping action of your heart.
3. Can you check for aortic stenosis?
Aortic stenosis is the most common and most serious of heart valve disease problems, according to the American Heart Association. When the heart pumps, the aortic valve opens to let a burst of oxygenated blood through, then it closes again until the heart’s next beat. But aortic stenosis is a narrowing of the valve so that it doesn’t open all the way.
In people over age 70, more than 10% have moderate or severe heart valve disease. This is an independent risk factor for major morbidity and mortality. In the case of severe aortic valve stenosis, half of symptomatic patients will die within two years. Nearly all those patients could be saved with surgery.
“That’s worse than just about any cancer you can come up with,” says Walinsky of the prognosis for aortic stenosis. “It’s incredibly deadly, and it’s one of the most underdiagnosed and undertreated diseases, even though we can successfully treat it with an operative mortality of less than 1 percent.”
Heart valve disease tends to have an insidious onset – it doesn’t happen overnight, and people believe they’re just slowing down because they’re getting older.