Jen Hyde, a 30-year-old poet and artist living in Brooklyn, has a congenital heart defect. By the age of 25, Hyde had two open-heart surgeries, including a heart valve replacement.
"I know that heart disease is the number one killer of women in America," Hyde said. "I'm currently in great shape, but part of staying this way means building a strong relationship with my cardiologist so that the care I receive is preventative, not reactive."
Hyde is not alone in suffering from heart health issues -- in the U.S., cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of both women and men, responsible for 25 percent of deaths annually. Heart valve diseases are among the reasons for concern: five million Americans are diagnosed with heart valve disease every year.
The most common heart valve disease is aortic stenosis (AS), a disease in which the opening of the aortic valve is narrowed. AS is a progressive disease and can be life-threatening. People who have developed symptoms from severe AS have about a 50 percent chance of living two years and 20 percent chance of living five years without valve replacement.
Among those 75 and older, the prevalence of AS is as high as 12 percent -- a number only expected to increase along with life expectancy. Because women generally outlive men, many women are likely to develop AS.
Often, heart valve disease goes undiagnosed. Difficulty climbing stairs or being active without running out of breath is often shrugged off as a normal sign of aging, but it could be a sign of AS and should be discussed with a healthcare provider. Other signs include fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, feeling faint, heart palpitations, and heart murmurs.
Risk factors for AS and other heart valve conditions can be congenital, like in Hyde's case. Other risk factors include:
• Your age: As you age, your heart valves may become thicker and stiffer; this usually begins after age 60.
• Radiation therapy to the chest
• Infection, such as infective endocarditis, caused by bacteria that enters the bloodstream and settles in the heart.
• Rheumatic fever in childhood, caused by a bacterial infection that can affect the heart
• Genetics: Some types of heart valve disease tend to run in families
• Other heart problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack, heart failure and arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
If you think you may be at increased risk for heart valve disease, talk with your healthcare provider. Your doctor will be able to tell if there's a problem by listening to your heart. Following up with an echocardiogram--a test that uses ultrasound waves to create an image of the heart--can usually help confirm a diagnosis.
Because heart valve disease symptoms are difficult to discern early on, it's essential to stay on top of regular checkups and voice any concerns with your healthcare provider. Be sure to report symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing, trouble exercising, fatigue, palpitations, lightheadedness and fainting. Patients and caregivers can visit www.newheartvalve.com for further resources.
A fundamental SWHR advocacy and public education priority has been to bring attention to be the burden of cardiovascular disease in women and the need to support research and innovation that provides benefit and improved quality of life to those suffering with the disease. Learn more about SWHR's work on heart health, including the SWHR Interdisciplinary Network on Cardiovascular Disease at www.swhr.org.