Date: November 25th, 2014
Did you know that the human heart is divided into four chambers? After blood passes through the lungs to pick up oxygen, it flows into the two upper chambers, called atria. When each atrium contracts, or squeezes, blood is pushed through a valve—a thin leaflet of tissue that keeps the blood moving in the correct direction—into the bottom chambers, or ventricles. Blood is then squeezed out of the ventricles through another set of valves and circulated throughout the body.
Valves keep blood from leaking backwards when the heart squeezes by only opening one way and then sealing tightly as soon as the blood passes through. There are four valves in the heart: the tricuspid valve, pulmonary valve, mitral valve and aortic valve. Heart valves play a vital role in pumping blood to your body. When they are diseased or damaged, it not only impacts your heart’s ability to function, but can also affect your overall health.
All types of valve disease involve damage to one of the heart’s four valves. While some types are not serious, others can lead to major complications, including disability, loss of independence and even death. The good news is that repair and replacement—the most effective treatments for most valve diseases—have very high success rates for patients of any age. In most cases, treatment improves quality of life and can add many more healthy years to our lifespan.
Valve Disease in Women
As many as five million Americans are diagnosed with valve disease each year. Around one in 50 women has some type of valve disease, and this number increases with age. One in 13 women between 65 and 75 years of age has valve disease. By age 75 that number has grown to one in 10 women.
Men and women are equally likely to have valve disease, but it affects each gender differently. In general, women with valve disease have a worse prognosis than men. This is often because women are more likely to ignore their symptoms and delay seeing their health care professional. When it comes to valve repair and replacement, women often fare worse than men because their disease has progressed further when they do get treatment.
Valve disease also impacts every woman differently depending on her age, physical condition, and severity of the condition.
Recognizing Valve Disease
It is vital to identify symptoms of valve disease and promptly seeking treatment. When valve damage reduces blood flow, the heart has to work harder to get blood and oxygen to the body. This can lead to a number of symptoms. Talk to your health care professional if you are experiencing any of the following:
- Shortness of breath
- Severe fatigue
- Pressure or weight in the chest, especially after activity or exposure to cold air
- Sudden weight loss
- Feeling dizzy or too weak to perform normal activities
- Feeling that the heart beats irregularly or skips beats
- Swelling in the ankles, feet or belly
- Sudden weight gain
- Fever, chills, night sweats, paleness and/or weakness
Many of these symptoms will only happen during activity, but as the disease gets worse they may also happen while resting. It is important to note that not everyone will encounter symptoms, even if their disease is severe. For these people, detection of a heart murmur serves as the most important clue that they have valve disease.
The only way to really know if you have valve disease is to be diagnosed by a professional. Do not be afraid to get a second opinion if you feel as though your symptoms are being dismissed. Research has shown that women experiencing heart disease symptoms are often misdiagnosed as having anxiety and don’t get the treatment they need.
Educating Women at the Community Level
To help educate about this condition, the Alliance for Aging Research has made available a number of resources that we’d like to share with you.
Recognizing the need for cardiovascular health education targeted to women, the Alliance has created the Heart to Heart: Women with Valve Disease educational workshop materials. Heart to Heart provides all of the resources necessary for community leaders to present a workshop for women with valve disease, including: a Leader’s Guide, educational patient brochures, participant quizzes and a slide presentation. All materials are available electronically.
To learn more about valve disease in women, its symptoms, diagnosing the disease and available treatments:
- Watch our short “pocket film” on YouTube.
- Check out our patient fact sheets.
- Test your valve disease knowledge with the Valve Disease Quiz.
- Hear from the experts in the valve disease podcast series.
Remember, valve disease is treatable at any age, and a diagnosis is not a barrier to living a long, active life!