A heart ailment that kills hundreds of Iowans every year isn’t one most people know about. When people hear about heart disease, it usually brings to mind heart attacks or congestive heart disease, but not heart valve disease.
Sue Peschin, president and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research, says there’s very little public awareness about the potential health threat. “Heart valve disease involves damage to one or more of the heart’s four valves,” Peschin says. “While some types are not serious, others can lead to major complications, including death.”
The older you get, the more your odds increase for having trouble with a heart valve, and Iowa’s population is one of the nation’s oldest, as nearly 17-percent of Iowans are now over age 65. “In 2017, which is the last year the data were available, 348 Iowans died from heart valve disease,” Peschin says. “That’s a rate of about 36.9 per 100,000 and that’s really reflective of the aging of the population in Iowa.”
This is National Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day and a campaign is underway to increase recognition of the risks and symptoms, improve detection and treatment, and ultimately save lives. “Heart valve disease can be there at birth or you can develop it from damage later in life, just from wear and tear to getting older,” Peschin says. “Age is the greatest risk factor for heart valve disease, especially if you’ve had a heart attack, or you have diabetes or hypertension. Those all put you at higher risk.”
The best ways to avoid heart valve disease are familiar, maintaining a good diet and getting routine exercise. Still, the symptoms of heart valve disease are varied and sometimes don’t show up at all. “You could have shortness of breath or dizziness or tightness or discomfort in the chest,” Peschin says. “You might feel exceptionally tired or get a swollen belly, ankles or feet, but a lot of people with heart valve disease don’t have symptoms, even if their disease is severe.”
Just by listening to your heart, a physician should be able to detect a heart murmur, which is often the most important clue. She says heart valve disease can usually be successfully treated with valve repair or valve replacement in patients of all ages and ethnicities. A recent study found about 40% of people have never heard of heart valve disease and only one in four know even some details about this serious disease.