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Hidden heart condition that can be fatal affects 1 in 4 seniors

PHOTO: Freepik

A recent study has unveiled a surprising and concerning fact: 28% of seniors over the age of 60 have undiagnosed heart valve disease. This revelation highlights the importance of better screening methods to manage health in older adults. The study, led by the University of East Anglia-UK, examined nearly 4,500 healthy, symptom-free seniors and found that more than a quarter had heart valve issues that were previously undetected.

The scope of the problem

Heart valve disease often goes unnoticed in seniors, mainly because the symptoms can be subtle or non-existent until the disease has progressed significantly. This study shines a light on just how prevalent this issue is. Co-lead author Dr Vassilios Vassiliou, a Clinical Professor of Cardiac Medicine at UEA’s Norwich Medical School, stated, “This study focused on understanding how widespread heart valve issues of any severity are among healthy, symptom-free adults without any known heart diseases.”

Key findings

Researchers examined almost 4,500 individuals aged 60 and older from three regions in the UK: Norfolk, West Midlands, and Aberdeen. They used echocardiography, an ultrasound of the heart, to detect heart valve disease. The results were striking:

  • 28% of these adults had some form of heart valve disease.
  • Most cases were mild, but the data showed that age was a significant factor. The older a person, the higher their chance of having a significant valve issue.

Understanding heart valve disease

The heart has four valves (pulmonary, tricuspid, aortic, and mitral) that control blood flow, ensuring it moves in one direction. Heart valve disease occurs when these valves do not function properly. There are two main types:

  • Valve stenosis: The valve does not open fully, restricting blood flow.
  • Valve regurgitation: The valve does not close properly, allowing blood to leak backwards.
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heart condition
The image is showing the difference between a normal valve and valve stenosis | PHOTO: Pantai Hospital

The impact on health

Heart valve problems can put extra strain on the heart, making it work harder. Over time, this can increase the risk of serious conditions like heart attacks, strokes, and other heart diseases. Symptoms of heart valve disease can include breathlessness, chest pain, dizziness, swollen ankles and feet, fatigue, and palpitations.

Challenges in diagnosis

Diagnosing heart valve disease can be tricky, especially in older adults who may not exhibit obvious symptoms. Between 2007 and 2016, 10,000 asymptomatic patients over the age of 60 were invited to participate in the study. Of those, 5,429 volunteered, and 4,237 were eligible. They underwent a health questionnaire, clinical examination, and transthoracic echocardiography.

The study found that 28.2% of the participants had heart valve disease, but only 2.4% had clinically significant valvular heart disease. This means that while many had some form of the disease, only a small percentage had cases severe enough to require immediate medical attention.

The need for improved screening

Professor Vassiliou emphasised the need for better screening methods, stating, “The diagnosis of heart valve disease mostly relies on transthoracic echocardiography, but this is normally only carried out if symptoms are reported or if an unusual murmur is heard during a physical examination.” This approach can be problematic in elderly patients whose mild symptoms might be mistaken for general ageing or reduced physical activity.

heart condition
Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash

Moving forward

This study reveals that many older adults have heart valve issues, even if they don’t show any symptoms. Professor Vassiliou suggests that if people develop any new symptoms or signs of heart disease, they should discuss them with their doctor. As our population ages, this information can help healthcare providers better understand the scale of valve disease and improve routine care methods and screening programs.

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Dr James Leiper, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, stressed the importance of continued research and funding. He said, “This important research using a very large group of people without symptoms showed that over a quarter of participants had a previously undetected heart valve condition. Further research will be required to build on these strong foundations and develop methods to test the feasibility of disease identification in these individuals.”

This study is a significant step in understanding the prevalence of heart valve disease conditions in seniors. With more research, healthcare providers can develop better screening methods to identify and manage heart valve disease before it becomes a severe health issue. As the population ages, these findings will be crucial in ensuring that seniors receive the care they need to live healthier, longer lives.

Should you need a full heart screening or need to consult a reputable and experienced cardiologist, contact Medijump for more details.

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