A Lifesaving Heart Test
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A Lifesaving Heart Test

Millions of Americans are affected by valvular heart disease, a little-known but serious condition that's the main cause of sudden heart failure.

Has your doctor ever listened to your heart while you were lying on your left side or sitting up and leaning forward? She should. It's the best way to listen for the kind of heart murmur that could signal valvular heart disease, a little-known but serious condition that's the main cause of sudden heart failure. It affects millions of Americans, including about 4 percent of those under age 35. By age 75, more than half of us will be afflicted. But most doctors don't always hear the murmur that signals a valve problem, or don't think it warrants further testing. Here's what you need to know about this potentially deadly condition:

What it is: An abnormality of one of the heart's four valves that causes the heart to pump overtime to move blood to the rest of the body. Eventually, all that extra work can wear out the heart.

What causes it: You can be born with a valve abnormality, or a valve can be damaged by a bacterial or viral infection.

Symptoms: Red flags include tiring easily during exercise, difficulty breathing, discomfort in the center of the chest, or fainting. Many people have no symptoms, so the condition often isn't diagnosed until the heart muscle has been irreparably damaged.

Treatment: If your doctor hears a heart murmur, she should send you for an echocardiogram to pinpoint the kind of valve problem you might have. Though promising treatments are in the pipeline, there's no cure. Some drugs work for some patients, but more research is needed. If the disease progresses, you may need surgery to repair or replace the damaged valve.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, August 2004.

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