THIS week is International Heart Valve Disease Awareness Week (September 14-20), and local heart and stroke charity Croí is highlighting the need for those over the age of 65 years to ask their doctor to listen to their heart with a stethoscope at least once a year.
The call comes against a backdrop of low public awareness of heart valve disease which can lead to death within two years of severe onset if not diagnosed and treated on time.
Heart valve disease is a common, serious but treatable disease. The chances of developing the condition increase with age, especially after 75 years, with estimates suggesting that 13 per cent of people over that age will experience heart valve disease.
There are over 2.7 million people across Europe age 65 and over thought to have heart valve disease with this figure set to rise to 20 million within the next two decades due to changing age demographics.
International Heart Valve Disease Awareness Week is an initiative of the Global Heart Hub, an international alliance of heart patient organisations from around the world which was founded by Croi. Full information on the week can be found at https://croi.ie/valveweek2020/.
Irene Gibson, Croí Director of Programmes and Cardiovascular Nurse Specialist, is urging people over the age of 65 years to take the opportunity of International Heart Valve Disease Awareness Week to remember, at least once a year, to ask their doctor to listen to their heart with a stethoscope:
“We know that the outcomes for people who are not treated for heart valve disease are stark. More than half of those with severe aortic stenosis – the most common form of heart valve disease – die within two years of developing symptoms if not treated.
“We also know that some of the symptoms such as breathlessness, feeling older than our age, tiredness and weakness, are often ignored and dismissed as simply age catching up with us.
“Our older generation make a vital contribution to society and, as highlighted by Covid-19, we need to proactively cherish and protect them. Heart valve disease is predominantly a condition of ageing, being most common in older age groups.
“With more and more people living longer, we need to ensure that they can enjoy healthy longevity. Early diagnosis is key and it is one of the few heart conditions that has almost curative treatment options through either heart valve repair or replacement. Our message is simple – if you are over age 65 – ask for a stethoscope examination at least once a year when visiting your doctor.
“Listen to Your Heart”: your heart valve disease questions answered
What is heart valve disease? The heart has four valves responsible for the flow of blood in the body. Heart valve disease is where one or more of these valves is diseased or damaged, giving rise to a narrowing of the valve (stenosis) or causing leakage (regurgitation), meaning the heart can’t pump blood effectively.
There are four types of heart valve disease – mitral and aortic regurgitation, and mitral and aortic stenosis, with aortic stenosis being the most common.
What causes it? The causes of the disease can be due to various reasons including abnormalities at birth (congenital heart disease), a previous infection such as rheumatic fever, damage to the heart arising from a heart disease or a heart attack, or wear and tear due to ageing.
What are the symptoms? Symptoms can include chest tightness or pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, swelling of hands or feet, dizziness, fainting and difficulty exercising. However, some mistake symptoms as part and parcel of getting older, while for others there can be no obvious symptoms at all.
How is it diagnosed? Diagnosis is initially by using a stethoscope to listen to the heart for a heart murmur. If a GP hears a murmur, the patient will then be referred to a cardiologist for further tests. People over 65 years are urged to have a stethoscope check every year.
How is it treated? There is a range of effective treatment options, including medication and surgery to repair or replace the diseased valve. If left untreated, heart valve disease can unfortunately give rise to heart failure, stroke, blood clots and heart rhythm abnormalities.