July 13, 2024

One in four healthy people aged 60 and over in the UK have undiagnosed heart valve disease, research suggests.

The conditions develop when one or more of the heart valves do not work properly. The main problems are caused by the valves either not opening fully or not closing properly.

Heart valve disease can put extra stress on the heart and increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other heart health problems, experts said.

Researchers led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) found that one in four adults who were healthy and had no symptoms had the disease but didn’t know it. Their findings were published in the European Heart Journal Cardiovascular Imaging.

Co-lead author Vassilios Vassiliou, a clinical professor of cardiology at UEA’s Norwich medical school, said: “This study focused on understanding how widespread heart valve problems of any severity are among healthy, symptom-free adults without any known heart disease.

“We examined almost 4,500 individuals aged 60 and over from three regions in the UK: Norfolk, West Midlands and Aberdeen, using echocardiography, which is an ultrasound of the heart.

“Our findings showed that more than 28% of these adults had some form of heart valve disease, although reassuringly in the majority of cases it was only mild.

“The data also indicated that age was the main factor associated with these heart valve problems, meaning that the older a person is, the more likely they are to have a significant valve problem.”

Co-lead author Prof Michael Frenneaux, of the Royal Brompton Hospital in London, said the hearts of those with undetected disease were likely to be put under more pressure as a result. “Over time, this can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke and other heart conditions,” he added.

Symptoms may include feeling breathless, chest pain, feeling weak or dizzy, swollen ankles and feet, feeling more tired than usual and palpitations in the chest or neck.

Over more than a decade, 4,327 asymptomatic patients aged 60 and over took part in the British Heart Foundation (BHF)-funded study after being invited via their general practice.

They were evaluated with a health questionnaire, clinical examination and transthoracic echocardiography, which is an ultrasound of the heart. Heart valve disease was diagnosed in 28.2% of the participants.

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“This study reveals that many older adults have heart valve problems even if they show no symptoms and we would suggest that if people do develop any new symptoms or signs that could indicate heart disease to discuss it with their doctor,” said Vassiliou.

“As our population ages, this information can help health care providers understand the extent of valve disease and streamline routine care methods and screening programs to ensure we can handle the demand in the future.

“This way they can better identify and help those at risk before problems become serious.”

Prof James Leiper, BHF’s associate medical director, said the findings were important and called for research to find ways to identify more people with heart valve disease.

A separate study on Thursdaypublished in the British Medical Journal, found that a decline in coronary heart disease rates among people under 60 in the UK had stalled, with researchers saying this could be down to rising obesity rates and a lack of exercise.

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