Caring For Your Aortic Valve
The four valves of your heart have a critically important job: they direct the flow of blood through your heart. Keeping your heart’s valves healthy is crucial so they can function effectively. When you decide what to eat for breakfast or whether to hit the gym, these lifestyle choices may seem small–but they’re not. All those choices, when added together, can make a significant impact on your heart health.
That’s especially important when it comes to your aortic valve, which separates your heart’s left ventricle from the aorta, the main vessel that carries oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of your body. When your aortic valve doesn’t function properly, it can be due to aortic stenosis, a condition in which the aortic valve becomes narrower, restricting blood flow. Aortic valve stenosis limits the amount of blood reaching the rest of your body, leading to chest pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, and more. If untreated, it can be fatal. Fortunately, making healthy choices and looking out for signs of problems can help keep your aortic valve healthy.
If it seems like you always encounter the advice to quit smoking, it’s for good reason: smoking contributes to many health issues, including heart disease. The more you smoke, the greater your risk for developing cardiovascular disease. Smoking contributes to the build-up of plaque in your arteries, and it can raise your blood pressure. It can also significantly speed up the progression of aortic stenosis and raise your risk of developing it in the first place. Ultimately, smoking causes approximately one in every four deaths related to cardiovascular disease. But if you quit smoking, you’re removing a big stressor on your entire cardiovascular system, including your aortic valve. It’s not easy to quit, but it’s definitely worth trying–and trying again until you succeed.
How’s your blood pressure? If you have high blood pressure, or hypertension, you’re putting strain on your entire cardiovascular system, including your aortic valve. Research shows sustained high blood pressure increases your risk of aortic stenosis. But you can take steps to keep it under better control and get it down to a safer level. If you have high blood pressure or you’re on the cusp–the current threshold for high blood pressure, per the American Heart Association (AHA), is 130/80–embracing some heart-healthy lifestyle choices like exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight can help. If your doctor has prescribed an antihypertensive medication for you to take, commit to taking it–or switch to a different medicine until you find one that works for you.
The importance of eating a heart-healthy diet can’t be overstated. One key benefit of smart food choices is that this approach can help you keep your cholesterol levels under control. Research shows high cholesterol levels raise your risk of developing aortic stenosis.
A heart-healthy diet includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein. And there are a few things you want to either avoid or consume more sparingly, such as:
- Most Americans consume way too much sodium. The American Heart Association wants you to limit your daily sodium consumption to 2,300mg, but an even better goal is 1,500mg. Much of the 3,400mg that the average person consumes each day comes from processed and packaged foods, so you might want to examine where you can make healthier substitutions of fresh foods, as well as opt for salt-free seasoning blends and herbs for flavor. And watch out for sneaky sources of sodium, like canned soup, salad dressings, and even bread.
- Unhealthy fats. Try to reduce your consumption of saturated fats as much as possible and avoid eating foods that contain trans fats. Saturated fats are present in red meats, full-fat dairy, butter, and coconut oil, among other foods. Trans fats can be present in foods like vegetable shortening, fried foods, and baked goods. Many companies have worked to reduce or eliminate trans fats in their products, but it’s still worth reading the nutrition labels, just to make sure.
Bonus: eating a heart-healthy diet can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which is good for your entire body, not just your heart.
Brushing your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste twice daily can help ward off tooth decay. Diligent brushing and flossing can also ward off potential infections that could damage your heart. How? Those bacteria in your mouth that can lead to cavities and gum disease can cross into your bloodstream and travel to your heart. You might develop an infection of the heart tissue known as endocarditis. The inflammation that can result from this type of infection can damage cardiac muscles and worsen any existing aortic stenosis you have. Brush that bacteria away before it can cause any trouble.
It’s also important to have a good grasp of your risk factors for heart disease. One key area to address is your family history. For example, do you know which relatives had heart disease or health conditions that contribute to heart disease? Your doctor should be aware of these risk factors, in case you need monitoring.
If you haven’t had your cholesterol or your blood pressure checked recently, tackle that soon. This kind of knowledge can help you stay on track. You can also discuss these risk factors or health conditions with your doctor and decide if you need to be taking any medications or undergo any testing.
Feeling fatigued or short of breath, but you’re not sure why? Let your doctor know if you develop certain symptoms like those, especially if they’re getting progressively worse. This could be a sign of aortic stenosis. Many people attribute fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, and weakness to old age–but that’s often not the case. If you receive an aortic stenosis diagnosis, you’ll need to replace your diseased aortic valve. The good news is after valve replacement, your symptoms will likely be completely eliminated. Your doctor may recommend you undergo transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), which is a minimally invasive way to implant a new valve over your sick valve. The recovery is easier than with open-heart surgery, and your aortic stenosis can be resolved so you can feel better and live a healthier life. But the first step to improving your quality of life is making healthy choices and recognizing symptoms when they develop.