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Five Facts about Aortic Valve Surgery

Former First Lady Barbara Bush had it the other day. And actor/comedian Robin Williams is about to have it, too.

"It" is aortic valve surgery, a procedure in which one of the four valves that regulate the passage of blood in and out of the heart is replaced.

Here are five facts about aortic valve surgery, culled from my phone conversation with Abe DeAnda, director of aortic surgery at the Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York:

1. There is not much you can do to prevent or protect against aortic valve failure, which occurs when either the valve hardens or simply wears out, often as a function of age. (Mrs. Bush is 83; Mr. Williams is 57.)

2. Aortic valves can either leak, allowing blood to regurgitate into the heart, or become narrowed (or stenotic) so not enough blood gets past the valve.

3. About 75,000 to 99,000 aortic valve replacement surgeries are performed annually in the U.S. That includes instances in which the original valve is replaced by an artificial one and those in which surgeons replace the aortic valve with the patient's own pulmonary valve, which is in turn replaced with a cadaveric (i.e. harvested from a cadaver) valve. Not all damaged aortic valves require surgery -- but they all need to be evaluated and monitored by a cardiologist. Left untreated, hardened aortic valves eventually lead to heart failure and death.

4. Common symptoms of aortic valve damage include shortness of breath (which both Mrs. Bush and Mr. Williams are reported to have suffered) and, if the valve is stenotic, chest pain and passing out (or feeling that you might pass out). A leaking valve may cause no symptoms at all and may continue leaking for years without incident.

5. Being fit doesn't reduce your risk of aortic valve failure, but, as with all major surgeries, it increases your chances of a successful procedure and speedy recovery. Mrs. Bush's lead surgeon noted in the video posted here that her being fit helped her surgery go smoothly. (You'll want to watch the whole video to catch former President George H.W. Bush incredibly touching comments about his wife's surgery.)

Have you had your aortic valve replaced? Share your experience in the Comments section, please.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  March 9, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chronic Conditions , General Health , Popular Procedures , Seniors  
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My mom had this surgery (using the pig valve) a year ago. She's in her early 60's and had it because of blood regurgitation. She'd had rheumatic fever as a child, which caused heart damage. The article is correct that being fit doesn't prevent it. My mom jogged regularly for years.

She was healthy and didn't have ANY plaque build up in her veins. The recovery is pretty quick. Within a day or so patients walk around. My mom was walking miles a few weeks after surgery.

The downside to her procedure was that she can't do as much hard work/exercise with her upper body. Instead of jogging, she ONLY walks, which of course drives her a little crazy.

Posted by: bosslady1 | March 9, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I had my aortic valve replaced a little over 9 years ago. I was 58 at the time. It made a big difference in my stamina while engaging in physical activities. I attend a camp twice a year in the San Bernadino mountains at an altitude of 6800 ft. Before the surgery I would be out of breath after walking from the lodge to my cabin. After the surgery I could almost run to my cabin and not even be breathing hard!

My mother had the same surgery when she was 55. Her valve lasted 17 years. Apparently it is a family problem for us

Posted by: lavdad2 | March 9, 2009 3:26 PM | Report abuse

In January 2008, I had aortic valve surgery. I was close to 84. As I knew that I needed it, I had kept exercising, and when I saw my treadmill time (walking) decreasing, my cardiologist was convinced that time for surgery had arrived. Operation went extremely well (2 1/2 hours, pig valve). Unfortunately because of a wave of colds in Texas and the fact that some nurses were not careful enough with covering their nose and mouth when coughing, I got a cold that was worse than the sequel of the surgery. The cold over, 5 months later, I was walking up and down in Montana Glacier National Park, with a backpack full of photo gear, and felt perfect. I have been exercising practically every day, and my heart functions like a dream. I was told that a pig valve lasts for a good 20 years. When I reach 103, my future cardiologist should consider a replacement!

Posted by: jalabe | March 10, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

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