The heart valves are important structures that ensure blood flows through the heart in the right direction. There are four heart valves – the tricuspid, pulmonary, mitral and aortic valves. These valves open and close with each heartbeat, allowing blood to flow into the heart chambers and preventing backflow. Sometimes the heart valves can become damaged or diseased, preventing them from working properly. This is called valvular heart disease and it can affect the valves’ ability to open and close correctly. The most common causes of valvular heart disease include age-related changes, infections, coronary artery disease, and congenital heart defects. In many cases, there are things you can do to keep your heart valves as healthy and strong as possible. Here are some tips:
– Eat a heart-healthy diet low in saturated fat and salt
– Maintain a healthy weight and control other risk factors like high blood pressure
– Take medications as prescribed to treat underlying conditions
– Avoid smoking and limit alcohol intake
– Get regular exercise to keep your cardiovascular system strong
– Have regular checkups to monitor valve function
– Consider supplements that support heart health
Understand the risk factors for valvular heart disease
There are a number of risk factors that can contribute to the weakening of heart valves over time. Being aware of these risk factors is important, as some of them can be modified with lifestyle changes or treatment. The main risk factors include:
Age-related changes to the valves cause them to stiffen and thicken, preventing them from opening and closing properly. This is the most common cause of valve problems in older adults.
Congenital heart defects
Birth defects affecting the heart valves can lead to abnormal function later in life. Bicuspid aortic valve, where the aortic valve only has two leaflets instead of three, is a common example.
Infective endocarditis, an infection of the heart’s inner lining, can damage valves. Things like poor dental hygiene increase infection risk.
Coronary artery disease
Atherosclerosis can cause changes to the aortic and mitral valves. Keeping cholesterol levels controlled reduces this risk.
High blood pressure
Long-term high blood pressure puts extra strain on the valves, especially the aortic and mitral valves.
Things like rheumatic fever, radiation therapy to the chest, connective tissue disorders, and calcium deposits on the valves can also affect valve strength and function.
Focus on controllable risk factors
While you can’t change some valve disease risk factors like your age or congenital defects, there are many modifiable risk factors you can control. Making lifestyle changes and following your doctor’s recommendations to manage conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes can go a long way in supporting valve health and preventing damage.
Control high blood pressure
High blood pressure is one of the biggest controllable risk factors for heart valve problems. The force of high pressure damages the valves, so getting your blood pressure into a healthy range reduces strain on the valves. Work with your doctor on lifestyle changes like diet, exercise, and medication to keep your blood pressure optimized.
Lower high cholesterol
High LDL cholesterol can promote calcification of the valves through atherosclerosis. By reducing cholesterol through diet, exercise, quitting smoking, and medication, you can help prevent valve changes.
Manage health conditions
Work diligently with your doctor to manage any conditions like diabetes, kidney problems, and coronary artery disease. These increase the likelihood of damage to the valves over time. Sticking to your treatment plan helps reduce complications.
Maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight or obese adds strain to the heart and valves. Losing excess weight through diet and exercise promotes valve health. Even losing 10% of your body weight can make a big difference.
Incorporate a heart-healthy lifestyle
Making comprehensive lifestyle changes to support your heart and vascular health will also benefit your valves. A heart-healthy lifestyle includes:
Following a nutritious diet
Eat a diet focused on heart-healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, high fiber whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Limit processed foods, added sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. This supports healthy blood pressure and cholesterol.
Get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise like brisk walking to keep your cardiovascular system in good shape. Strength training also helps.
Maintaining a healthy weight
Work to achieve or maintain a BMI within the normal range (18.5-24.9 kg/m2) to avoid excess strain on the valves.
Smoking promotes atherosclerosis and increases valve disease risk. Quit smoking to take pressure off your valves.
Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Heavy alcohol use can contribute to high blood pressure and heart damage.
Take medications as prescribed
If you have health conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arrhythmias, or coronary artery disease, be sure to take all medications as directed. These help control risk factors that could otherwise put extra strain on the valves. Never abruptly stop taking prescribed medications.
Some common medications used to support valve health include:
Help lower blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels. This reduces strain on the valves.
Help lower blood pressure and reduce the heart’s workload.
Rid the body of excess fluid and sodium to decrease blood pressure.
Lower LDL cholesterol levels in the blood.
Prevent blood clot formation that could lead to heart attack or stroke.
Be sure to monitor for medication side effects and stay in touch with your healthcare provider. Never make changes to medications or dosages without medical guidance.
Have regular checkups
It’s important to have regular medical checkups to monitor the health of your heart valves, even if you feel well. Your doctor can listen to your valves with a stethoscope to check for murmurs and closely monitor your risk factors with bloodwork and other tests.
With routine exams, any developing valve problems can be caught early. Early treatment helps prevent complications like heart failure, blood clots, or permanent valve damage.
How often you need checkups depends on your individual health status and risk factors. Your doctor will make recommendations based on your needs, but once a year is generally recommended. See your doctor promptly if you ever develop symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain, swelling, or palpitations.
Consider supplements for additional support
While no supplement can treat valvular heart disease, some supplements may provide additional support for heart valve health when taken alongside standard medical therapies and lifestyle measures.
Some supplements used for supporting heart health include:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Fish oil supplements may help lower triglycerides and provide anti-inflammatory effects. Always opt for pharmaceutical-grade fish oil.
This antioxidant may help improve cellular energy production and protect the valves from oxidative damage.
Magnesium may help relax blood vessels and control blood pressure levels.
Many people are deficient in vitamin D. Optimal levels may help reduce inflammation.
This antioxidant vitamin aids collagen production, which is important for healthy heart valves.
Vitamin B Complex
B vitamins support red blood cell production and help regulate blood pressure.
Always consult your doctor before starting supplements, especially if you take other medications or have any health conditions. Use supplements to complement, not replace, standard valve treatments.
Consider minimally invasive valve procedures
In cases of more severe valvular heart disease, minimally invasive valve repair or replacement procedures may be necessary to restore normal function.
Inserting a small balloon-tipped catheter through the blood vessel to the valve and inflating the balloon to stretch the valve open wider. This improves narrowing (stenosis).
Tightening or reinforcing valve cusps and correcting defects like prolapsed leaflets. This preserves the native valve.
Replacing a damaged valve with a prosthetic one via catheter through the leg artery rather than open-heart surgery.
Like TAVR but for correcting mitral valve disease. The prosthetic valve is delivered through a vein in the groin.
Discuss risks and benefits of any procedures with your cardiologist. These techniques allow valve corrections with shorter recovery times.
Know when to see a cardiologist
See a cardiologist promptly if you develop any of the following signs of potential valve disease:
– Shortness of breath
– Persistent chest pain or tightness
– Swelling in the legs, ankles or feet
– Rapid weight gain from fluid retention
– Fatigue, weakness, dizziness
– Palpitations or irregular heartbeat
– Fainting episodes
A cardiologist can check for heart murmurs indicating faulty valves and order tests like an echocardiogram to evaluate valve structure and function. Depending on the cause and severity of valve problems, treatment may include medications, minimally invasive procedures or valve surgery. Prompt treatment helps prevent irreversible damage.
Know your valve disease risk
Certain valve problems like mitral valve prolapse run in families, so know your family history. Older age, congenital heart defects, and conditions like diabetes also raise risk. African Americans are more prone to bicuspid aortic valve. People with prior rheumatic fever have higher risk.
Work with your doctor to control modifiable risks like high blood pressure and high cholesterol through lifestyle changes and medication. Avoid tobacco and limit alcohol. Stay vigilant about dental care to prevent infections. Report symptoms promptly. Manage other medical conditions optimally.
While the heart valves naturally weaken and calcify as we age, focusing on a healthy lifestyle and controlling medical risk factors can help keep your valves as strong as possible for as long as possible. Make heart-healthy choices regarding diet, exercise, weight, smoking and alcohol use. Take all prescribed medications properly. Get regular medical checkups to monitor valve health and function. Consider supplements for added support if appropriate. Report concerning symptoms immediately. With a proactive approach, steps can be taken to strengthen your heart valves and achieve the best possible valve health.