The number of Australians suffering from heart valve disease is rising rapidly and the message from medical experts is simple: listen to your heart.
An ageing population means the number of undiagnosed cases of heart valve disease is projected to spiral, placing a heavy burden on the healthcare system and economy.
Cardiovascular experts at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute have released a white paper titled Our hidden ageing: time to listen to the heart, which reveals that more than a quarter of a million Australians have undiagnosed faulty heart valves and are at risk of serious complications – such as heart failure, stroke, blood clots, heart rhythm abnormalities and even death.
More than half a million Australians have heart valve disease or a malfunctioning valve that disrupts the blood flow through the heart.
About 1.2 million people are living with complications relating to heart valve disease, which results in one death every 18 minutes or 79 every day.
Most people are aware of the risk factors relating to heart attack, stroke and heart failure through years of highly visible messaging, but the paper’s lead author, cardiologist Professor Tom Marwick, says far fewer people are aware of the dangers of heart valve disease.
“Much like a machine that can break down, the heart can malfunction if all the parts are not working well,” Prof. Marwick says.
“This includes small but incredibly important components, such as the valves between the atria and ventricles that make sure blood flows in one direction through the heart.
“When the large blood vessels are functioning well, they optimise the efficiency of pumping blood around the body. However, ageing causes the blood vessels to progressively lose elasticity and become stiff, impacting the vascular structure and function.
“This arterial damage increases mechanical stress on the valves, which are also susceptible to the same threats,” Prof. Marwick says.
“If you’re over 65 years of age, ask your doctor to listen to your heart, [he or she] may detect a heart murmur – often the first symptom of heart valve disease.”
There are several steps you can take to ensure your heart valves remain strong and healthy. HealthCentral says a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, lean meats and whole grains and low on salt, saturated fats and cholesterol will help lower the pressure on your heart valves.
Exercise is crucial to maintaining a healthy heart. Even light walking for 30 minutes a day can have a measurable effect on the strength of your heart valves. They need to get working to build strength.
A good night’s sleep is also important. Lack of sleep can lead to high blood pressure, accelerating the likelihood of heart valve disease.
Prof. Marwick says that making the public more aware of heart valve disease is the key to alleviating heart problems in the future.
“With early detection and intervention, those affected can return to their everyday lives, and continue to contribute to their families, communities and the economy,” he says.
“We need increased awareness through marketing campaigns; strategies to upskill and support primary care; financial support for the use of emerging technologies; health service design, including improved access to echocardiography; funding to improve access and equity to interventions; and development of national heart valve disease guidelines.”
So, what must you do? Ask your doctor to listen to your heart at your next check-up.
How long since you’ve had your heart listened to by a doctor? And how’s your diet and exercise? Let us know in the comments section below.
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