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Heart Disease Health Center

FAQ: Robin Williams Needs Heart Surgery

Actor-Comedian Set to Undergo Aortic Valve Replacement Surgery
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Which of these conditions might Robin Williams have?

It is difficult to say without information about symptoms and medical history, Robertson and DeAnda say. Stenosis is more commonly the reason for valve replacement, in Robertson's experience.

Stenosis usually comes on more gradually than a leakage problem, DeAnda says.

Isn't Williams, at 57, relatively young to have this condition?

Not really. The average age for symptoms associated with aortic valve stenosis is the early 60s, Robertson says.

Many of the patients that DeAnda performs aortic valve replacement on are in their 50s and 60s. But others, like Barbara Bush, are in their 80s. Some teenagers need the procedure, often because of a congenital abnormality of the valves.

How are these faulty valves detected?

A patient may report symptoms, such as sudden shortness of breath, DeAnda says. According to news reports, Williams complained of shortness of breath.

Or, a physician may detect a murmur -- an unusual or extra heart sound heard -- during a routine exam. The doctor may then refer the patient for an echocardiogram, a test that uses sound waves to create a detailed, moving picture of the heart and how it is functioning.

"Sometimes murmurs are innocent and remain innocent for years," Robertson says. "Just because you have a murmur doesn't mean you have a problem that will affect you long term." But these patients should be followed up with echocardiograms [sonogram of the heart] to monitor the condition, he says.

Are the causes of aortic valve problems genetic or due to lifestyle, or both?

"Probably genetics more than anything else," Robertson says, and DeAnda agrees. In some cases, lifestyle can be a factor, Robertson says. One example: a drug addict who injects drugs may develop a valve infection, damaging it, and making it necessary to replace it.

What is the aortic valve replaced with?

There are several options. Two of the most common approaches are to replace the damaged valve with a mechanical valve, or with a biological one, from human or animal tissue (pigs or cows).

"The younger patients are, the more likely they will have a mechanical valve," Robertson says. They last longer than the biological valves. The downside: patients with mechanical valves must be on blood thinners for the rest of their lives to reduce the risk of clots, Robertson says, although "there are [mechanical] valves being studied now that may not require ongoing blood thinners."

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