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What causes heart valve disease (valvular heart disease)?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Valvular heart disease has several causes. Coronary artery disease and heart attacks are conditions that can lead to heart valve problems; you can also be born with heart valve irregularities (aortic or mitral valves). The aortic and mitral valves can also develop problems if too much calcium makes them thick; the mitral valve can be damaged as people get older. Some medications, such as Fen-Phen and Redux, and treatments for cancer, such as radiation, may lead to valvular problems. Lastly, infections such as infective endocarditis and rheumatic fever, a kind of bacterial infection, can cause valvular heart disease.

Physicians currently do not know what causes congenital heart valve problems (those that are present at birth). However, acquired heart valve disease may be caused by a number of factors. Some of these factors are a natural outcome of aging, have hereditary elements or can be managed with prevention. In all cases, regular check-ups with your physician can help you maintain your heart valve health.

Risk factors for acquired heart valve problems include the following:

  • Rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever, which can result if strep throat is not treated, can damage the heart's valves, causing them to thicken. This can restrict the valves’ ability to open or to close properly, or both.
  • Endocarditis. This infection of the lining (endocardium) of the heart is typically caused when bacteria from another part of your body, such as your mouth, travels to your heart. Endocarditis is both a cause and a symptom of heart valve damage. That is, patients who already have heart valve damage are more likely to acquire endocarditis, and endocarditis itself can damage heart valves.
  • Wear and tear with age. With age, valve leaflets, which open to allow blood to flow through the valve and close to prohibit blood flow, can become hardened and thick and lose their mobility, detracting from their ability to work as they should. Over time, the cords of tissue that hold valve flaps to the heart can become stretched or torn, interfering with the valve's proper function.
  • Heart attack. A heart attack, which occurs when a blockage in an artery to the heart muscle starves the heart of oxygen and nutrients and causes damage, can affect valve function.
  • High blood pressure. Persistent high blood pressure can cause your heart to work harder, causing the heart's pumping chamber (the left ventricle) to enlarge. As it enlarges, tissues around the heart valves can become stretched, preventing the valve from closing properly.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.