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Heart Disease Health Center

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Barbara Walters' Heart Surgery

Heart Specialists Say Procedure Is Common, Outlook Good
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

May 11, 2010 -- Broadcast journalist Barbara Walters, famous for asking probing interview questions and getting politicians and celebrities to spill juicy details, gave little information Monday to her co-hosts on The View and her viewers about her upcoming heart surgery.

The 80-year-old TV personality simply said she needed heart valve replacement surgery to repair a valve that had become ''tighter and smaller.'' She didn't mention which heart valve, although an ABC news story pinpoints the aortic valve as the faulty one.

WebMD turned to two cardiac specialists for more information on heart valve surgery. Neither has treated Walters, and they emphasize they are speaking in general about heart valve replacement surgery.

In 2007, nearly 18,000 aortic valve replacement surgeries were done in the U.S., according to the Society of Thoracic Surgeons. The figure includes only "isolated" valve replacements, not procedures in which the aortic valve was replaced and other heart procedures also done.

Heart Valve Surgery: The Options

The heart has four valves (pulmonary, aortic, mitral, and tricuspid), but the aortic and mitral are most commonly in need of surgery, says Joseph DeRose, MD, chief of adult cardiac surgery at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of minimally invasive and robotic cardiac surgery at Montefiore -Einstein Heart Center in New York.

The aortic valve lets blood out from the left ventricle, the heart's main pump, into the aorta, the main artery bringing blood to the body.

The mitral valve is located between the heart's upper, holding chamber (left atrium) and the lower, pumping chamber (left ventricle) and allows blood to flow between them.

The mitral and aortic valves could be leaky -- letting blood escape at inappropriate times -- or they could be narrowed, what doctors call a stenosis, not letting enough blood through.

Heart valve problems can be the result of diseases that scar or destroy a valve, or the result of birth defects. Aging can take a toll on valves, too.

''Some thickening of the aortic valve is present in almost a quarter of people above age 65," says Raj Makkar, MD, director of interventional cardiology and the cardiac catheterization laboratory, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.

The thickening can lead to narrowing, or stenosis, he says.

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