Column: Take care of your heart

Sue Peschin

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, but if you’re lucky, your heart will stay with you for years to come. While many Americans know the consequences of heart disease and other well-documented complications, one continues to fly under the radar: Heart valve disease.

Roughly 68 Americans a day — 25,000 a year — die from heart valve disease, yet 3 in 4 Americans have little to no knowledge about the disease. Heart valve disease is a dangerous ailment, made only more dangerous by the American public’s lack of awareness.

My maternal grandfather, Ben Melnick, was a World War II veteran from Pittsburgh, who volunteered in his community and enjoyed spending time with his family. He died in 2006, about three months after open-heart surgery for aortic stenosis — a type of heart valve disease.

Stories like his are often lost in the shuffle. The mainstream media constantly covers diabetes, stroke, and obesity, leaving Americans with a troubling blind spot when it comes to heart valve disease. So what is heart valve disease and why should you care?

The heart consists of four valves, and it is their duty to keep blood flowing in and out of the heart. But when one or more of those valves become damaged, heart valve disease can occur. This disruption in blood flow can lead to major consequences, even death. Common symptoms include shortness of breath, weakness or dizziness, pain or tightness in the chest, and fatigue.

One of the major risk factors for heart valve disease is age. In fact, 1 in 8 people over the age of 75 has moderate to severe heart valve disease. This impact on older adults is often attributed to wear and tear due to aging, or from previous heart conditions, such as infections or atrial fibrillation.

However, heart valve disease also affects the youngest among us. Babies can be born with heart valve problems that usually develop sooner or later into heart valve disease. About 40,000 babies a year are born with a congenital heart defect, and nearly 600 newborns or infants under the age of 1 die each year from congenital heart valve disease.

But natural factors are not the only causes of heart valve disease. You’re probably familiar with the risk factors for general heart disease, such as high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, and lack of physical activity. These can also increase your risk of developing heart valve disease.

Unfortunately, people too often dismiss the symptoms they feel as a consequence of getting older and dismiss them as unimportant or something they can’t change. Routine heart checks with a stethoscope can often pick up a heart murmur, which can be a telling sign of heart valve disease.

We need a national conversation about heart valve disease. That is why the Alliance for Aging Research partnered with more than 40 national advocacy organizations, nonprofits, hospitals, and heart centers to recognize National Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day. Tomorrow will mark the second annual day. This observance occurs during American Heart Month.

The four key messages of the campaign highlight its goals: know your risk factors, listen to your heart, get your heart checked regularly, and spread the word and raise awareness.

Sue Peschin is president and CEO for the Alliance for Aging Research in Washington, D.C.