Opinion

When It Comes to Heart Health, Knowledge Is Power

You have probably heard that serious conditions like diabetes, obesity or high blood pressure can put you at greater risk of severe illness if you get COVID-19. But you may not know that these same conditions increase your risk for heart valve disease. In fact, a lot of people don’t know what HVD is, even though it impacts more than 11 million people in the United States.

While media outlets often spotlight heart attack, coronary artery disease and atrial fibrillation, Americans are left with a troubling blind spot when it comes to other types of heart disease. This is especially concerning considering most deaths from HVD are preventable, if people recognize their risk factors and symptoms and get timely treatment.

In fact, survey data found that more than two-thirds of respondents said they knew little to nothing about HVD prior to their diagnosis. The survey also revealed that 6 in 10 respondents who were diagnosed with HVD either didn’t have symptoms or didn’t recognize their symptoms. That’s because the symptoms of HVD may not be obvious, even if it’s a severe case.

HVD occurs when one or more of the heart’s four valves is damaged, interrupting blood flow and often causing serious complications — including death. For those who do experience symptoms, including shortness of breath or general fatigue, they may be dismissed as a “normal” part of aging. If you or a loved one is experiencing these symptoms or have any of the risk factors mentioned above, don’t ignore them — speak to your doctor and ask if a heart exam is needed.

Fortunately, going to the doctor soon after noticing symptoms can prevent a serious and potentially deadly outcome. HVD can typically be treated successfully in patients of all ages, and an easily detectable heart murmur can be the most telling sign. That’s why regular heart exams could save lives.

Getting the public to be aware of HVD and to watch out for symptoms is only half the battle. In addition to low public awareness, even fewer people know that their HVD risk factors are tied to social determinants of health, including race, ethnicity, income and geographic location.

In general, those ages 75 and older are at a greater risk for valve disease. However, we know that Black American adults experience risk factors for HVD at earlier ages than whites. For example, the prevalence of high blood pressure in Black Americans is among the highest in the world. More than 40 percent of non-Hispanic Black men and women have high blood pressure. Chronic high blood pressure increases the likelihood of heart failure, a primary risk factor for HVD, and Black Americans develop heart failure before the age of 50 at 20 times the rate of white Americans.

While we know that Black Americans tend to be younger when they develop HVD risk factors, less is known about whether health care providers are detecting and treating HVD in these patients. One study found that the odds of being referred to a cardiothoracic surgeon for treatment of HVD were 54 percent lower in Black American patients when compared with whites.

Making things even more complicated, Black Americans with HVD are 33 percent more likely to decline treatment than white patients. This is despite the fact that when they are treated, both groups have similar success rates. The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute recently convened a working group focused on patient-centered research in HVD. It outlined key disparities in diagnosis and care delivery, and identified areas where research can help us better understand and eventually address these inequities.

There is still much to learn about HVD, but we know this: The first step to closing the gap in treatment is to increase awareness of HVD and its risk factors. February is Black History Month and American Heart Month. Speak to your doctor and visit ValveDiseaseDay.org to learn more about your possible risk factors. Then, go get your heart checked. You might just save your life.

 

Susan Peschin, MHS, is the president and CEO for the Alliance for Aging Research and John Whyte, M.D., is the chief medical officer at WebMD.

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