Narrowing the gap on heart valve disease deaths within our reach
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“There’s no such thing as being too Southern.”

It’s a Lewis Grizzard quote that truly encompasses him. Born and raised in Georgia, Lewis was a beloved columnist and humorist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. My wife went to high school with Lewis and millions of readers across the country knew him through his columns. His humor, self-deprecating observations about life and unapologetic reflections on old fashioned values made him a Southern icon.

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In 1982, Lewis published a book titled “They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped that Sucker Flat.” Along with love and loss, he also talked openly about his congenital heart defect and preparing for surgery. When doctors told him they could give him a replacement heart valve from a hog, Lewis thought about his experience with hogs, which dated back to a classmate who occasionally rode a pet hog named Lamar to school, and his “voracious appetite for barbecue.”

“What would happen to me with hog in my heart? Every time I’d pass a barbecue restaurant, my eyes would fill with tears,” he mused.

Lewis calculated that at age 35, if the valve lasted about 10 years he could have more surgeries to keep living. If he made it to 75, he would “call it even.”

Sadly, Lewis died following his fourth surgery in 1994 at age 47. Since the time of his death, medical advances have led to an incredible survival rate for those with heart valve disease (HVD). Today, heart valve disease can be successfully treated and the survival rate following valve surgery is estimated at 97 percent.

But for all the people that are saved through treatment or surgery, an estimated 22,000 people in the U.S. still die from HVD each year. A lack of awareness about the disease and the warning signs are a major contributing factor. In an Alliance for Aging Research study of 400 individuals with HVD, 6 in 10 said they were diagnosed only because they went to see a health care provider for a regular check-up or other issue. As many as 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with heart valve disease but three in four people surveyed know little to nothing about the disease. Many people first become aware of a heart valve issue when a heart murmur is discovered during a routine heart check with a stethoscope.

Lewis believed in raising awareness about heart health and co-starred in a public service announcement for the American Heart Association in 1990. With National Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day coming up on Feb. 22, it’s a good time to learn about this disease and encourage loved ones to seek out a health care professional if they have risk factors or symptoms.

The heart is a complex organ and unlike other conditions such as coronary heart disease, one can be at low risk for a heart attack but still have a bad heart valve. Left untreated, HVD could cause heart failure and become deadly. The heart has four valves that control blood flow in and out of the heart. When a valve is damaged or doesn’t open or close properly, the body receives less oxygen to function, resulting in HVD. The symptoms of HVD include shortness of breath; weakness or dizziness; pain, tightness, or discomfort in the chest; fainting or feeling faint; fatigue; rapid or irregular heartbeat; lightheadedness; decrease in exercise capacity; and swollen abdomen or ankles and feet.

Unless the symptoms are part of a recurring pattern, many people don’t realize that these are signs of something serious that needs medical attention. Without early diagnosis for a severe HVD condition such as aortic stenosis, the survival rate drops significantly. Two years after the onset of symptoms, patients with severe aortic stenosis have a survival rate as low as 50 percent. Older age is a major risk factor for HVD and it’s estimated that 1 in 8 people age 75 and older have moderate to severe HVD. Other risk factors include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking or diabetes, which are similar to the risk factors for coronary heart disease. If you’ve had a previous heart condition, you are also at higher risk of developing HVD.

Sometimes symptoms don’t even appear or go unnoticed, even in severe cases.  Patients and doctors may fail to notice the often subtle, small changes, and may even dismiss them as “normal” signs of aging.  This makes awareness of the risk factors and symptoms especially important. 

As National Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day approaches I hope Members of Congress will help spread the word and educate constituents about this disease.  Stronger national awareness around HVD would go a long way in the fight against the disease. Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) has introduced a resolution in support of National Heart Valve Disease Awareness Day to help elevate knowledge of the issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides information on rheumatic and congenital forms of the disease but does not currently list heart valve disease on their A-Z list. This is notable because the CDC is one of the government’s main sources of public health information. Education and prevention efforts would benefit from a dedicated CDC webpage on HVD.

We often talk about how preventive care and recognizing symptoms of serious conditions saves lives. In the case of heart valve disease, the numbers don’t lie. A 97 percent survival rate following heart valve repair or replacement surgery is amazing, but far too many people still die because their heart valve disease went unrecognized and untreated. The greatest medical innovations cannot “treat” a lack of public awareness. And, when it comes to heart valve disease, what you don’t know can hurt you.

Philip Gingrey, MD is a former U.S. Congressman having served Georgia's 11th  congressional district from 2003 to 2015.  He is currently a Senior Advisor with the District Policy Group at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, whose clients include the Alliance for Aging Research.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.