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Over a Quarter of ‘Healthy’ Folks Over 60 Have Heart Valve Disease

Key Takeaways

  • Heart valve disease is more common than thought

  • The condition was detected in more than a quarter of healthy, symptom-free people aged 60 and older 

  • Ultrasounds that can detect the condition aren’t commonly used, researchers said

FRIDAY, June 28, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Heart valve disease is much more common in aging adults that has been thought, a new study warns.

More than a quarter of healthy and symptom-free people aged 60 and older had previously undetected heart valve disease, researchers report.

“Our findings showed that more than 28% of these adults had some form of heart valve disease, although reassuringly it was only mild in the majority of the cases,” said lead researcher Vassilios Vassiliou, a clinical professor of cardiac medicine with the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School in the U.K.  

“The data also indicated that age was the main factor associated with these heart valve problems, meaning that the older a person is, the higher their chance of having a significant valve issue,” Vassiliou said in a university news release.

Blood is meant to flow through the heart in one direction. Valves inside the heart keep blood from flowing back between beats, ensuring optimal function.

Heart valve disease occurs when one or more of the heart valves malfunction, either by not opening fully to let enough blood through or by not closing properly, which allows blood to leak back in the wrong direction.

“These problems can put extra strain on the heart and make the heart work harder,” said co-lead researcher Michael Frenneaux, of the Royal Brompton Hospital in the U.K. “Over time, it can increase the risk of having a heart attack, stroke and other heart conditions.” 

Symptoms of heart valve disease can include breathlessness, chest pain, weakness, dizziness, fatigue, swollen ankles and feet, or chest or neck palpitations, researchers said.

For the new study, researchers evaluated more than 4,200 UK residents aged 60 and older who had not been diagnosed with heart valve disease.

The participants filled out a health questionnaire, then underwent a clinical exam and an ultrasound reading of their hearts.

Heart valve disease was found in 28% of them, although moderate to severe disease was found in only 2.4%, results show.

One in every 42 of those 60 and older had undiagnosed valve disease, researchers estimated. That goes up to one in 15 for those 75 and older.

The diagnosis of valve disease relies heavily on heart ultrasound exams, but those are “normally only carried out if symptoms are reported or if an unusual murmur is heard during a physical examination,” Vassiliou said.

“This can be challenging in the elderly because mild symptoms may be masked by reduced physical activity and impaired mobility,” Vassiliou added.

“This study reveals that many older adults have heart valve issues, even if they don't show any symptoms, and we would suggest that if people do develop any new symptoms or signs that could indicate heart disease to discuss this with their doctor,” Vassiliou said.

Further studies are needed to figure out the exact prevalence of heart valve disease in the elderly, as well as better screening methods to accurately identify and manage the disease.

The new study was published June 26 in the European Heart Journal-Cardiovascular Imaging.

More information

The American Heart Association has more about heart valve disease.

SOURCE: University of East Anglia, news release, June 26, 2024

What This Means For You

People with symptoms of heart valve disease should talk to their doctor about getting screened for the condition.