As you get older, you might not be able to do the things you used to. Maybe your knees give you trouble. Maybe you just can’t stay up late anymore. Maybe your back gets stiff on long car rides.
But don’t assume every change is something you need to live with as you age. Do you feel like you can’t do as much as you should be able to do? Do you get fatigued or winded easily? Do you feel like you don’t have any ambition?
If your stamina isn’t what it used to be, it could be a sign of a common, serious heart valve disease called aortic stenosis (AS). It typically strikes people age 60 and older. You don’t have to resign yourself to living with it. AS is treatable.
Other symptoms of AS include:
- Chest pain
- Irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or fainting
- Swollen ankles or feet
What is aortic stenosis?
With AS, the opening of the main valve on the left side of the heart gets narrow over time. The heart works harder to pump blood through this narrow opening. AS can make it hard for your body to get all the nutrients and oxygen it needs.
Vuyisile Nkomo, MD, is an American Heart Association expert and a Mayo Clinic cardiologist with a focus in echocardiography and heart valve disease. He says, “Valve disease is related to aging. Your risk of developing it is related to getting older.”
About 5% of people age 65 have AS, and that number climbs as people get older. Often, people who develop AS in their 60s don’t show symptoms until they are in their 70s or 80s.
Some people are born with an abnormal heart valve that makes AS more likely. They might develop the condition in their 40s or 50s or earlier.
What should you do about aortic stenosis?
Regular checkups are an important part of diagnosing AS. In the early stages of AS, you might not notice symptoms. But AS can cause an irregular blood flow. Your doctor can hear that abnormal blood flow as a heart murmur when listening to your heart.
Nkomo says a lot of people brush off heart murmurs as something they’ve had all their lives. But that could be a mistake. If you have AS, it could be getting worse over time. “Just because there are no symptoms doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow up on that murmur,” Nkomo says.
If your doctor hears a heart murmur, you’ll probably need an echocardiogram. That’s a painless ultrasound of the heart. The echocardiogram can show your doctor how severe your AS is. “With an echocardiogram, if you’re diagnosed with aortic stenosis you can be put on appropriate surveillance,” Nkomo says.
Your doctor will recommend repeat echocardiograms on a certain schedule, depending on how healthy your valve looks. Mild cases might need to be checked again in three to five years. For more severe cases, your doctor might want a recheck in six to 12 months.
And if you have symptoms of AS, like slowing down, shortness of breath, or feeling faint, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help determine whether AS or another condition is causing your symptoms.
What are the risks of aortic stenosis?
Untreated, AS can be dangerous. It can lead to heart failure and death. “It can shorten your life expectancy if it’s severe enough and not fixed,” Nkomo says. Fortunately, if AS progresses and needs intervention, your healthcare providers can treat it with a valve replacement.
It’s important to find out if you have AS. If you do, your doctor will work with you to come up with a plan for monitoring and treating it. That way, you can stay as healthy as possible.