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'Hidden ageing' could lead to premature heart malfunction

Australian cardiovascular experts are concerned about the rapid rise in numbers of people with undiagnosed heart valve problems, particularly with the growing ageing population.

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Heart valve disease (HVT) can fly under the radar and some older people may not realise that they have heart health issues. [Source: Shutterstock]

A new whitepaper, 'Our Hidden Ageing: Time to Listen to the Heart', from Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, finds that more than half a million of Australians have heart valve disease (HVD), which could lead to heart malfunction.

The Institute believes what is equally concerning is that more than a quarter of a million Australians who have faulty heart valves and are at risk of serious complications, don't even know it. These complications include heart failure, stroke, blood clots, heart rhythm abnormalities, and even death.

Early diagnosis of heart valve disease and surgeries, like valve replacement, could save people over 65 more than $117 million in a year.

Cardiologist, researcher and lead author of the whitepaper, Professor Tom Marwick, says that hearts are much like a machine that can break down if the parts in the heart aren't working well.

"If you’re over 65 years of age, ask your doctor to listen to your heart. The doctor may detect a heart murmur – often the first symptom of heart valve disease," says Professor Marwick.

"It is important to keep in mind that the common symptoms of heart valve disease – especially exercise intolerance – are often misattributed to ‘old age’.

"With early detection and intervention, those affected can return to their everyday lives, and continue to contribute to their families, communities and the economy."

It is projected that undiagnosed cases of heart valve disease will increase to 336,000 cases in 2031 to 435,000 in 2051, which would put a huge burden on the Australian healthcare system, ageing population and economy.

The Institute says that people are familiar with heart attacks, strokes, and heart failures, but not as well versed with heart valve disease, where the heart valves malfunction and can't pump as much blood around the body.

Professor Marwick explains, "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."

Ageing can be a big component of heart valve disease and is not as easy to spot as you would other diseases. The most affected group with HVD are people aged 65 and over.

Luckily, heart valve disease is very treatable and early detection and intervention can help a person with this disease return to their everyday lives.

Phil Holmes, a 71 year old from Melbourne, has a busy job which he often traveled every week for (prior to COVID-19), but managed to make time to work out six days a week at his gym.

When he started to get tired doing push-ups at a work fundraiser, he didn't realise that it was actually heart related.

Mr Holmes was smart enough to go see his doctor about it, even though he thought it was just age and fatigue that caused him to get tired doing push ups.

He was later diagnosed with aortic stenosis, which required surgery for an aortic valve replacement. Mr Holmes was back in the gym and cycling three weeks after his operation and feeling more like himself again.

"Heart valve disease is real. It must be treated with both the urgency and due attention it deserves,” says Mr Holmes.

Gerlinde Binning, a 77 year old Professional Weaver from Melbourne, agrees with Mr Holmes, saying she was aware she had potential heart issues but didn't follow it up. Later that year, she had to be rushed to hospital when her heart health severely declined.

Ms Binning lives a very active lifestyle, including walking and biking with friends daily, but she was still diagnosed with heart valve disease.

"Up until recently, I had never even considered myself at risk of developing HVD. Given I had few symptoms, and was able to perform daily activities, my heart health was never top of mind for me," says Ms Binning.

"That's why I firmly believe that Australians should be both informed and aware of the various risk factors for developing HVD, and the different treatment options available."

To learn more about heart valve disease or to view the latest white paper research, head to the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute website.

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