Older adults are being encouraged to find out more about heart valve disease, as many of those affected assume that their symptoms are simply down to old age.
The heart and stroke charity, Croí, has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the condition as part of European Heart Valve Disease Awareness Week.
Heart valve disease occurs when one or more of the valves in the heart become diseased or damaged. This prevents them from opening and closing properly, which can affect the heart's ability to pump blood effectively.
A diseased valve can either be repaired or replaced by surgical or less invasive procedures. Some 50% of those with the most severe form of the disease, aortic stenosis, will die within two years if not diagnosed promptly and treated appropriately.
However, symptoms such as breathlessness, dizziness, swelling of hands/feet and fatigue are sometimes mistaken for old age.
While the disease can impact younger people in their 40s and 50s, ageing is a primary factor, and generally, incidence increases from age 70 onwards.
However, research suggests that just 4% of Irish people aged 55 and older are even aware of heart valve disease. People tend to be much more concerned about heart attack and stroke.
Croí is encouraging people aged 65 and older to make themselves aware of the signs and symptoms of heart valve disease and if experiencing any of these, to visit their GP.
"GPs can easily identify a potential issue through a stethoscope examination and research shows that approximately one-third of GPs do this as a matter of course. However, some don't, so if you're over 65 and concerned by symptoms, be proactive, go to your GP and ask for a stethoscope check at least once a year, " commented Dr Darren Mylotte, a consultant cardiologist at Galway University Hospital.
According to Croi, the treatments for HVD are, in many cases, "less of an ordeal than the heart surgery of former years". In some cases, valves can be repaired and replaced either minimally invasively through a 4-5cm incision or via a catheter through an artery in the leg.
Recovery is much less painful and quicker as a result.
"The landscape of heart valve surgery has changed significantly, even in the last few years. Technology is continually allowing us to reduce the risk and pain to our patients, which in turn reduces fears related to treating a condition such as this.
"GPs who communicate this to their patients tend to help significantly with the patient's apprehension around seeking treatment," explained Dr Samer Arnous, a consultant cardiologist at Limerick University Hospital.
Meanwhile, according to Mr Alan Soo, lead consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at Galway University Hospital, when it comes to this disease, self-awareness is key.
"The patient plays a significant role in his/her own treatment pathway. People should not dismiss or ignore symptoms and warning signs and simply attribute them to old age. It is vital that you discuss any concerns that you may have with your GP.
"Sometimes we see patients that are just too sick to treat, but had they been diagnosed when they first became symptomatic, the prognosis may just have been more positive," he pointed out.
According to Croí, the top symptoms to look out for are:
-Tiredness: Heart valve disease has an impact on your energy
-Shortness of breath: Maybe you cannot walk as far as you used to, or perhaps you have to sit down more regularly than before
-Chest tightness or pain: Do not ignore this, it requires urgent attention
-Swelling of ankles or feet: People rarely believe that this is related to their heart, but it is something to watch out for
-Dizziness: If you have been having episodes, visit your doctor immediately
-Fainting: Same as above
-Rapid or irregular heart beat: If your heart is racing, talk to your GP
-Heart murmur: If this is new, then a GP will spot it with a stethoscope exam, but even patients with a historic heart murmur need to keep an eye on their hearts for other developments such as heart valve disease
-Feeling older than your age: If you suddenly do not feel like yourself, or it feels like you have aged overnight, talk to your GP.
"We often find that patients are blaming age for changes in how they feel, believing this is ‘just how it is' and not talking to their doctor about them. Some of these symptoms can be due to heart valve disease so don't put off talking to your GP.
"Delays in seeking a medical opinion can be a mistake - moving quickly on heart valve disease can make a significant difference to a patient's future. It could quite literally mean the difference between life and death," commented Neil Johnson, CEO of Croí.