A new report says sky-high levels of a nasty blood fat called Lp(a) -- short for lipoprotein (a) -- double your risk for severe heart valve damage, boosting odds that you'll need a replacement valve sometime between age 60 and 90. Lp(a) stiffens and clogs the walls of valves and arteries, and the threat (and consequent need for surgery to repair it or install a new valve) is not rare.
Baby boomers and their older friends and relatives are dealing with the problem. (A quarter of adults 70-plus already have signs of heart valve thickening; more than half of the more than 5,000 open-heart procedures at the Cleveland Clinic now involve valve repair or replacement.) Fortunately, there's plenty you can do NOW to safeguard your valves.
Valve 101: The four valves in your heart control the flow of blood to your lungs and to arteries that feed every cell in your body. A stenotic valve (it doesn't open wide enough or close properly) reduces blood flow, causing fatigue, shortness of breath and even heart failure. It also boosts your risk for clots that cause heart attacks and strokes.
Risk factors include some things you can't do much about: age, genetics (that's the cause for 10 percent of folks with the condition) and having had rheumatic fever (a common complication of strep throat before antibiotics became the go-to treatment in the 1950s). But there are other triggers -- such as high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and a double-wide waistline -- that you can do something about.
Valve protection: The Cleveland Clinic, where Dr. Mike works, routinely measures Lp(a) levels and recommends statins when those levels are high. In one study at the hospital's Preventive Cardiology Clinic, people with high Lp(a) levels who took statins erased excess risk for heart-related deaths.
Now we think statins can help slash risk for valve problems. Studies have shown that in people with early signs of valve thickening, statins can cut the risk for serious valve harm by 36 percent. The trick? Start early, before your valves suffer damage.
One way to discover if you're beginning to get valve damage is to get an echocardiogram. But even if your valves seem OK, if your Lp(a) levels are high, ask your doctor about taking a statin. A bonus: They'll provide protection against other heart health risks and may cut your risk for Alzheimer's disease.
Here are other ways you can protect your heart and heart valves from damage:
» Keep a lid on your blood pressure. High blood pressure heats up your risk for damaged valves by as much as 74 percent. Eat less sodium (less processed and fast food), and get your fill of more blood-pressure-calming calcium, potassium and magnesium, found in low-fat or fat-free dairy, fruit, vegetables, beans and 100 percent whole grains. Watch your weight and fit in a half-hour walk every day; your cholesterol levels will benefit, too.
» Kick that habit. Smoking more than doubles your risk of severe valve damage. Make a quit plan (check out our proven strategies at RealAge.com); talk with your doc about crave-controlling medications and counseling support. Then make it happen.
» Cool off inflammation. Inflammatory compounds in your bloodstream have been linked to greater risk for stiff, calcium-speckled valves. So whittle your waistline, exercise regularly and decorate your plate with healthy foods such as fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables, beans and 100 percent whole grains. And do not forget the added benefit of the odd omegas: DHA omega-3 (900 mg a day from fish or supplements); ALA omega-3 (from walnuts, flax, chia or avocados); and purified omega-7.
» Already have stiff or damaged valves? Follow your doctor's advice for avoiding infections, which pose an extra threat now. Get your vaccinations, and you may need antibiotics before dental work or before some invasive medical tests. And ask your doc about adding a low-dose statin medication to any current regimen, even if your cholesterol levels are normal. Stay smart for your heart.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Dr. Mike Roizen is chief wellness officer and Wellness Institute chairman at the Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, visit sharecare.com.