An estimated 13% of people over the age of 75 will experience heart valve disease, however awareness of this condition is very low in Ireland, the heart and stroke charity, Croí, has warned.
Heart valve disease occurs when one or more of the valves in the heart is diseased or damaged, giving rise to a narrowing of the valve (stenosis) or leakage (regurgitation). This means the heart cannot pump blood effectively.
Symptoms can include chest tightness or pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, swelling of hands or feet, dizziness, fainting and difficulty exercising. Some display no obvious symptoms at all.
"Heart valve disease is predominantly an age-related condition. As we get older, the greater the chances of developing it. Early detection and timely treatment not only reduce the impact of the disease, but increase longevity with enhanced quality of life.
"Globally we are living longer and it's in everyone's interest that we maintain good health and quality of life for as long as possible," commented Croí CEO, Neil Johnson.
The charity is calling on the Government to introduce a free annual cardiac health check for people over the age of 55, as this would allow for the diagnosis of a range of cardiovascular diseases, including heart valve disease.
It pointed to the findings of the European Heart Health Survey, which was carried out in 11 countries, including Ireland, in October 2019. It found that just 5% of Irish people could accurately define aortic stenosis, which is the most prevalent type of heart valve disease.
If severe aortic stenosis is left untreated, 50% of patients will die within two years of developing symptoms. However if diagnosed early, heart valve disease is very treatable.
A simple stethoscope check can pick up heart valve disease by listening for a heart murmur, however just 32% of Irish people said that they always get a stethoscope check at every GP visit. Some 9% admitted that they never get one, while 10% said they only get one if they ask for it.
"A stethoscope check is an inexpensive means of undertaking early diagnosis for heart valve disease and everyone over 65 years should have one at least once a year.
"This combined with checks for other cardiovascular diseases such as a pulse check for atrial fibrillation, blood tests for heart failure and cholesterol, and blood pressure checks for heart attack and stroke, should form part of a comprehensive annual cardiac check," Mr Johnson insisted.
He emphasised that these are "simple, inexpensive and non-invasive" tests.
According to Prof Helge Möllmann, lead author of the European Heart Health Survey, awareness of this condition needs to increase, particularly among older people.
"The senior population are a group at risk, more so as they grow older, so it is important that they are more aware of the disease and understand the severity of often hidden symptoms to help ensure early diagnosis and timely treatment," she said.
Croí highlighted this issue as part of International Heart Valve Disease Awareness Week (September 14-20). For more information on the condition, click here.
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