Lifestyle changes key to preventing valvular heart disease
After years as a cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Jose Torres is still amazed by 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 Torres, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the James Family Heart Center at Yavapai Regional Medical Center (YRMC) West.
If the valves don’t open enough, a condition known as stenosis, or they do not close properly, a condition known as pulmonary valve insufficiency, a patient may be diagnosed with valvular heart disease. The condition affects up to 3 percent of Americans.
People with valvular heart disease may experience shortness of breath and decreased activity levels. These symptoms, though, can be so subtle as to go unnoticed, he said.
“Valvular heart disease is often diagnosed when a cardiologist detects a murmur – an irregular and often rapid heart rate – during a physical examination,” Torres said
Torres emphasized this type of “murmur” is not genetic like other heart murmurs. Some people who contracted rheumatic fever as a child, or suffer from heart infection, may also be at risk for this disease, he said.
Genetic predisposition aside, however, Torres said lifestyle is often a major contributing factor to his condition.
“People can minimize their risk of developing valvular heart disease by making modifications to their lifestyle,” Torres said.
How? Torres suggests three key ingredients to lowering their risk: do not smoke or quit smoking; eat a heart healthy diet and exercise regularly.
When symptoms become severe, or a patient experiences heart failure, Torres said surgery may be required, and damaged valves may need to be replaced.
In those cases, there are two types of replacement valves: bioprosthetic and mechanical. “The surgeon’s valve recommendation depends on the patient’s age and situation,” Torres said.
People 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.
As with most medical conditions, though, prevention is always preferable to treatment, Torres noted. Annual checkups are also key to early detection, he said.
“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,” Torres concluded.