Heart Valve Problems
The heart has two distinct sides (right and left) and four distinct chambers. The upper chambers are called atria. The right atrium collects blood flowing in from the body and the left atrium collects blood flowing in from the lungs.
The lower chambers are called ventricles. They collect blood from the atria then pump it forcefully out. The right ventricle pumps blood to the lungs, and the left ventricle pumps blood through the aorta to the rest of the body.
The heart has four valves (aortic, mitral, tricuspid, and pulmonary). The job of each heart valve is to open, so that blood can flow out of the chamber, and to close, so that blood does not flow back the wrong way.
Heart valves can be damaged by disease or by normal “wear and tear” over a lifetime of use. Among adults age 75 and older, one in eight has moderate or severe heart valve disease. Valve problems include:
- Stenosis – when a valve does not open wide enough, blocking the blood flow
- Regurgitation – when a valve does not close well and becomes leaky, allowing blood to flow in the wrong direction
The most common heart valve problems in older adults are:
- Aortic stenosis – when the blood flow through the aortic valve is partially blocked, reducing blood flow from the left ventricle to the aorta and to the rest of the body
- Mitral regurgitation – when blood flow through the mitral valve leaks from the left ventricle back into the left atrium
- Tricuspid regurgitation – when blood flow through the tricuspid valve leaks from the right ventricle back into the right atrium
Not all heart valve problems need treatment. Some people may benefit from medicines to treat the problem, while others may need a procedure or surgery to repair the problem. Fortunately, there have been major advances in the repair and replacement of heart valves, even in older adults who may have been considered too sick for these procedures in the past.
Last Updated July 2020