Your heart has four valves that play an important role in pumping the necessary amount of blood throughout your body. One of the valves is called the aortic valve. It has thin leaflets of tissue that open and close when the heart beats to regulate blood flow.
An aortic valve usually has three leaflets and is called a tricuspid aortic valve; but sometimes an aortic valve has two leaflets, which is then called a bicuspid aortic valve. Over time, leaflets of the aortic valve may become stiff, which causes a narrowing of the aortic valve opening. This means the valve cannot fully open and close like it should. As the opening becomes smaller, it makes it harder for the heart to pump blood, which can affect your health.
This condition is called aortic stenosis (also called aortic valve stenosis or aorta stenosis).
In most elderly adults, aortic stenosis is caused by a build-up of calcium (a mineral found in your blood) on the valve leaflets. Over time, this causes the leaflets to become stiff, reducing their ability to fully open and close.
A normal aortic valve contains three leaflets. But sometimes people are born with an aortic valve that has one, two, or four leaflets. When defects are present, the aortic valve may leak and this can cause valve problems.
Sometimes strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever which can cause scar tissue to form within the heart. When this happens, the aortic valve may not be able to open and close as it normally should.
Some people may develop inflammation and scar tissue after receiving radiation therapy. This can make the aortic valve stiff and unable to function properly.
Severe Aortic Stenosis, Not Age, was Behind Larry's Symptoms
After being diagnosed with mild aortic stenosis, and living years without symptoms, Larry's condition began to worsen. Follow Larry's journey.
Living life to the fullest is important to you. But aortic stenosis can interrupt your golden years if it goes undetected and untreated. That’s because it is a progressive disease and will get worse over time. Doctors will typically measure the disease as mild, moderate, or severe aortic stenosis. The stage of aortic stenosis depends on how damaged your aortic valve is.
In the mild and moderate stages of aortic stenosis, the decrease in blood flow is usually not significant enough to cause outward symptoms. In fact, many people are unaware they have the condition or may be told they have a heart murmur during a routine check-up.
Once aortic stenosis advances to the severe stage, the deadly disease won’t wait for you to delay treatment. As the leaflets become more damaged, the opening of the aortic valve becomes more narrowed and your heart muscle gets weaker. Uncomfortable symptoms such as shortness of breath or fatigue may become more noticeable and can become life-threatening.
Patients sometimes confuse these symptoms of severe aortic stenosis with the normal signs of aging. Don’t wait until this disease completely disrupts your life before seeking help.
Before your symptoms get severe, have the courage to ask your doctor for an echochardiogram — a simple test that can tell you how well your heart valves are working. The American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association recommend that people with mild aortic stenosis get an echocardiogram every 3-5 years and people with moderate aortic stenosis get an echocardiogram every 1-2 years.4
U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division. June 2015.
Osnabrugge RLJ, Mylotte D, Head SJ, et al. Aortic Stenosis in the Elderly: Disease Prevalence and Number of Candidates for Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement: A Meta-Analysis and Modeling Study. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2013;62:1002-1012.
Otto C. Timing of aortic valve surgery. Heart. 2000;84(2):211-218.
Otto CM, Nishimura RA, Bonow RO, et al. 2020 ACC/AHA Guideline for the Management of Patients with Valvular Heart Disease: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Joint Committee on Clinical Practice Guidelines. J AM Coll Cardiol. 2021 Feb 2;77(4):e25-197.