As blood moves through the heart, there are four valves that work to keep it flowing in the right direction.
The mitral valve is located on the left side of the heart and regulates how blood moves between the left atrium and the left ventricle.
How the Mitral Valve Works
The pulmonary veins feed oxygen-rich blood to the left atrium. Once it’s filled, the mitral valve opens and allows the blood to flow to the left ventricle.
Just as quickly, the valve closes to prevent any blood from flowing back into the left atrium. It’s a well-choreographed process that unfolds in a matter of seconds.
The mitral valve has two leaflets. Think of them as a set of double doors. They’re the parts of the valve that open and close to allow blood to pass and prevent it leaking backwards.
Fan-shaped connective fibers called chordae tendineae help maintain the connection between the left ventricle and the mitral valve so the leaflets can open and close with less tension.
What Can Go Wrong with The Mitral Valve
Problems with the heart’s valves can occur as a result of birth defects, another medical condition, or aging.
As we age, heart valves can accumulate deposits of calcium, a mineral found in blood. This may never cause any trouble. But in some, particularly those with a bicuspid aortic valve, these calcium deposits can thicken the leaflets of the aortic valve and narrow the valve.
Heart valves can also slowly degenerate over time, a condition known as degenerative valve disease, which affects the mitral valve more often than the others.
Mitral valve prolapse, a condition that affects three to five percent of the American population, is a common example of degenerative valve disease. The leaflets and chordae tendineae become abnormally stretchy, which causes the leaflets to bow and, in severe cases, leak.
The majority of people with the condition have no leak or a very mild leak. Only the severe cases require treatment. For milder instances, annual monitoring is usually sufficient.
The mitral valve is especially susceptible to leaking, or regurgitation. Wear and tear may stretch or damage the leaflets, elongating the fibers that support them. Over time, this can worsen to the point that the leaflets no longer close as they should.
With a minor leak, the valve can still accomplish its job. In fact, some people with mitral valve prolapse will never develop a severe leak. But if it worsens, the heart needs to work much harder to pump more blood, which increases the risk of more significant complications.
Reducing Your Risk of Heart Valve Problems
While there’s no way to guarantee you’ll never have a valve problem, several lifestyle factors can be controlled to reduce your risk.
Aim for at least two and a half hours a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, like brisk walking. Exercising on a regular basis (after consulting your family doctor) can lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, increase “good” HDL cholesterol levels, and control high blood pressure—all risk factors for heart disease.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
People who are overweight or obese have a markedly higher chance of developing coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, breathing problems, and more.
Smoking can raise your risk of heart disease and heart attack and worsen other heart disease risk factors. Try to avoid secondhand smoke, too.
Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet
Limit your consumption of sodium, saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and alcohol. And load up on veggies, fruits, whole grains, lean meats, fish, legumes, and vegetable oils. These are the foundation of what’s often referred to as a “heart-healthy diet.”