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Barbara Walters' heart surgery: What is aortic valve replacement?

Barbara Walters' heart surgery to replace her aortic valve is serious surgery, but it's not an uncommon procedure. About 18,000 such surgeries took place in the U.S. 2007, according to  the American Heart Association.

But what exactly is the surgery and why is it needed? We caught up with Dr. John Conte, associate director in the division of cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins, to answer some basic questions.

What is aortic valve surgery?
The aortic valve is the main valve leading out of the heart. Surgery is performed to repair or replace it.

What is the aortic valve replaced with?
There are many different types of valves. Bioprosthetic valves are made from living tissue. Specifically pig heart valves and cow pericardium (the sac around the heart of all mammals). Mechanical valves are made of a carbon-based metal. In simplest terms, bioprosthetic valves can wear out in 10 to 20 years but don't need blood thinners. Mechanical valves last forever but demand blood thinners your entire life.

What are the reasons for replacing it?

They are replaced because they become stenotic, meaning the openings are too tight, and blood has a hard time getting out of the heart. Or the valves leak and blood goes back into the heart.

How are such valve problems detected?

Usually they are detected when the patient becomes short of breath, becomes tired easily or develops chest pain.

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

The cause is usually wear and tear which causes the valve to calcify. It can also be caused by inherited traits and congenital anomalies.

What's the recovery time and how safe is the procedure?

The recovery time is usually measured in weeks, following a hospital stay of a few days to a week. It is a very safe and good procedure that is easy to reproduce.

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