Q. My 60-year-old sister recently had open heart surgery to replace her aortic valve. It turns out that she had a bicuspid valve that was severely narrowed. But why couldn't she have the other, less invasive procedure, which I heard has a much shorter and easier recovery?
A. Narrowing of the aortic valve develops when calcium deposits build up on the flaps of tissue (called leaflets) that regulate blood flow through the valve (see illustration). Known as aortic stenosis, this can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, and dizziness. Most people who develop severe aortic stenosis are in their 70s and 80s. But the problem can occur much earlier in people with a bicuspid aortic valve, which means the valve has only two leaflets instead of the normal three. Between one and two of every 100 people is born with this defect.
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About the Author
Christopher P. Cannon, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Heart Letter; Editorial Advisory Board Member, Harvard Health Publishing
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