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29th September 2018

Positive ageing with a strong heart

When Brenda Walker learned that she had a high-risk heart condition at 77, she wasn’t about to let it get in the way of completing her PhD. A minimally invasive medical procedure made it possible to continue her studies uninterrupted while living life to the full and enjoying her family.

At the time, Brenda was very active and in good health apart from some asthma. “During the spring and early summer of 2011, when I was travelling around giving papers at various universities or involved in research, I began to get breathless and my left ankle kept swelling,” Brenda tells This Is MedTech. “As time went on, I found that when walking, I had to keep stopping to gain my breath. Also, I avoided all hills and steps.”

For a while, Brenda thought age must be catching up with her but also wondered if it could be her heart, given that her father had died of heart failure. She decided to see a doctor but recalls that he didn’t use a stethoscope and said she did not ‘present’ as someone with a heart problem. Nevertheless, Brenda decided to get checked by a cardiologist. “After listening to my heart, he explained very carefully that I had aortic stenosis, which needed to be treated. I asked him how long I would have to live if I did nothing about it and he said about two and a half years,” she says.

Aortic stenosis is a narrowing of the aortic valve that pumps the blood around the body. It’s caused by calcification or scarring of the aortic valve and usually begins sometime after the age of 60, but people may not begin to experience symptoms until age 70 or 80. It affects 5-7% of people aged over 65 years according to researchers. There are no specific medications to fix the condition, but there are surgical and minimally-invasive options for repairing or replacing the valve.

“I was in the second year of my doctorate and was determined that nothing should stop my studies. As I was 77, I needed to get my energy back quickly. Luckily, as my symptoms were severe, I was classed as a high-risk patient and was eligible for a minimally invasive surgical procedure called TAVI, short for transcatheter aortic valve implantation,” Brenda explains.

She wasted no time and soon after met with a number of specialist doctors to discuss the possibility of having TAVI, which was a new procedure at the time. “It was explained to me that this procedure repairs the valve without removing the old damaged valve by implanting replacement into the old one’s place,” she says. It involved inserting a narrow tube (catheter) into an artery in her groin until it reached her aortic valve, rather than open heart surgery.

“Having this procedure explained in detail and seeing diagrams, I was only too delighted to be part of something that would perhaps eventually become the norm. The deciding factor was the recovery time. All being well, I would be able to leave hospital after two and a half days,” she notes.

The procedure was carried out successfully on a Tuesday in November 2011 and two days later, Brenda walked to the car that took her home.  “Saturday afternoon was spent shopping with two of my adult children,” Brenda remembers. Her studies were uninterrupted, and at age 79 she received her PhD in English (Creative Writing) from Loughborough University, her thesis looking at British contemporary fiction and the new dynamics of ageing.

“It is seven years since I had my aortic valve replaced and I am 84. I’m as active as ever and continue to teach or learn new pursuits,” says the mother of five and grandmother of ten. “My large family has increased, providing me with two great-grandsons, and this miraculous procedure has enabled me to continue my belief in the power of positive ageing.”

This year’s World Heart Day falls on 29th September and is all about making the commitment to be heart healthy. For more information, click here.