Heart valve disease is more common in older people since heart valves can develop damage over time that affects their function. Early diagnosis and treatment are key.

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Over time, damage may occur to any of the valves in your heart. This can create uncomfortable sensations like chest pain and shortness of breath.

In some cases, you may need surgical intervention to repair or even replace a diseased valve.

As people age, the chances of developing heart valve disease increases. Read on for more information about developing heart valve disease as you age, recognizing the signs, and what to do next.

Heart valve disease, or valvular heart disease, occurs when damage or disease happens to any valve in the heart. And while any valve can be affected, the aortic valve is the most commonly affected heart valve.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 2.5% of the U.S. population has heart valve disease, and it’s more common in older people — approximately 13% of people born before 1943 have it.

There are several types of heart valve disease, including these common types:

Aortic stenosis

Aortic stenosis (AS), one of the most common types of heart valve disease, can limit the amount of blood sent to your body from your heart. This is because the aorta delivers blood from the heart to your body.

The aortic valve is the valve between the heart and the aorta. When it narrows, it limits the amount of blood that your heart can pump in and out of your aorta.

Mitral valve disease

Mitral valve diseases occur when the mitral valve doesn’t work properly. There are three types: stenosis, regurgitation, and prolapse.

Mitral valve regurgitation may happen as you age because your mitral valve can degenerate slowly over time. If the mitral valve does not close properly, it can allow blood to leak backward through the valve — or regurgitate.

According to the American Heart Association, mitral valve prolapse affects 2–3% of the population, which can eventually lead to mitral valve regurgitation.

Tricuspid regurgitation (TR)

The tricuspid valve is the valve that separates the right atrium and the right ventricle and controls blood flow from the right atrium to the right ventricle.

Mild TR may not cause symptoms or need intervention. But TR can allow blood to flow backward into the atrium, which can cause your right ventricle to weaken over time, potentially causing heart failure.

TR affects up to 1.5% of the population. The likelihood you’ll have it increases as you age.

The symptoms may come on slowly. You might notice that your energy is flagging or you have less stamina than you once did.

Depending on the type of heart valve disease, other symptoms may include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath, especially after exercise
  • fatigue
  • heart fluttering, pounding, or racing

Some people with heart valve disease do not have or notice any symptoms at all.

In order to make (or rule out) a heart valve disease diagnosis, your doctor will likely begin with a medical history and physical exam.

Your doctor might listen to your heart with a stethoscope and notice a murmur, which is the sound of blood flowing from one chamber of the heart to another. It can also make a clicking noise when a valve allows blood to flow back in.

Then your doctor may want to perform an echocardiogram, a test that creates images of your heart by using high-frequency sound waves. Additional testing may also be helpful in making a diagnosis, such as:

Most cases of heart valve disease are treatable, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Some mild forms of heart valve disease, such as a mild form of mitral valve prolapse regurgitation, might not require any treatment.

Surgery has long been considered the first choice in treatment for more serious heart valve disease, according to the CDC. But there are some risks associated with surgery, such as bleeding, blood clots, and infections.

Heart valve disease can weaken various chambers of your heart, which can weaken your heart and eventually lead to heart failure.

If not diagnosed and treated, you can also develop:

Age is one of the main risk factors for valvular heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, calcium deposits form along the lining of heart valves over time, which causes the valve flaps to become thicker and stiffer.

Other risk factors for older adults include:

Early diagnosis and treatment are important for better outcomes, to help slow disease progression, and to help you have a higher quality of life — and longer life.

Older people with heart valve disease who require surgery have generally been considered high risk. But research suggests that advances in treatment like valve repair and replacement have improved the outlook for older adults with heart valve disease.

Will I need surgery?

Depending on your diagnosis, you may need surgery to surgically repair or replace a damaged or diseased valve in the heart. Ideally, this will correct the disorder, reduce your symptoms, and improve your quality of life.

What kind of doctor will I need to see if I develop heart valve disease?

You will likely need to consult a cardiologist for diagnosis and treatment, and a cardiac surgeon if your heart valve needs to be repaired or replaced.

How long will it take to recover from heart valve surgery?

Recovery periods can vary from person to person, but you may need 4–8 weeks to recover. Your recovery time may be shorter if you have a minimally invasive procedure.

As you age, it’s important to take note of any new symptoms you have that may mean you have heart valve disease or a related heart condition.

Talk with a healthcare professional if you develop symptoms or have risk factors for heart valve disease.

Early diagnosis is critical when it comes to slowing down the progression of heart valve disease and improving your chances for recovery.