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YOUR HEALTH: Small birth defects could explain some adult heart issues

Doctors treating adults with heart conditions might want to consider defects at birth

PITTSBURGH — Could problems with your heart as an adult be a result of tiny defects you had at birth?

Congenital Heart Disease, or CHD, is actually a group of diseases affecting the heart chambers, valves, or arteries near the heart. some are so mild they may be overlooked.

In most states, babies are screened for congenital heart defects, but sometimes, CHD doesn't show up right away.

"Some things do not become significant in terms of a patient having symptoms, until they're older and things progress over time as their body grows," said Dr. Tiffany Brazile, an internal medicine resident and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The most severe cases of CHD are often detected early and require surgery. 

But mild defects, like a small hole in the heart, may be overlooked since they have symptoms that are similar to other conditions, like asthma.

"One of the most common symptoms is feeling shortness of breath, sometimes at rest, but more common with physical exertion," said Dr. Brazile,

Dr. Brazile and fellow researchers have found that adult patients who are diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension or high blood pressure in the lungs may have a congenital heart defect that has gone undetected for years.

"It's very important to always consider whether or not there's a congenital heart disease that might be underlying another heart condition since it can manifest in other ways," she said.

"And as patients get older, it might be something that's not in the back of a patient or in some clinician's mind."

Dr. Brazile says delayed diagnosis of CHD can lead to serious complications, like pulmonary hypertension or heart failure, making it important for doctors to test for CHD regardless of a patient's age. 

Pulmonary hypertension can be caused by multiple things, some dealing with the heart and some with the lungs. 

In a patient, particularly patients who are on the younger side, doctors say it's always important to consider whether they do have congenital heart disease that was missed earlier in life because they weren't having symptoms yet.

"Sometimes on a physical exam when somebody is younger, doctors might hear a heart murmur or might hear some difference in their blood flow," said Dr. Brazile.

"That gives a clue is there something we might want to investigate and monitor over time."

Pulmonary hypertension can be caused by multiple things, some dealing with the heart and some with the lungs. 

In a patient, particularly patients who are on the younger side, it's always important to consider whether they do have congenital heart disease that was missed earlier in life because they weren't having symptoms yet.

"I think it's really important to consider those aspects in caring for patients to make sure that we're doing what we can to ensure that we are trying to limit these adverse effects when a diagnosis is delayed and therefore treatment is delayed."

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.