Dr. Raj Makkar, associate director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, said aortic stenosis -- a stiffening of the aortic valve's three flaps -- restricts the flow of blood from the heart to the rest of the body. It forces the heart to work harder and deprives the organs of sufficient oxygen-rich blood.
Aortic stenosis affects an estimated 2 percent to 9 percent of U.S. adults age 65 and older. The condition can cause chest pains, shortness of breath, dizziness and fainting, Makkar says.
Before catheter-based heart valve procedures were developed in the last decade, patients diagnosed with aortic stenosis would have only one option -- open-heart surgery -- but about one-third of the patients are too frail for open heart surgery.
Physicians insert a thin tube, or catheter, containing a compressed artificial aortic valve through a small incision in the groin or the side of the chest. It is threaded along the arteries to the heart and once the valve is positioned in the heart, a balloon nestled inside the valve is inflated.
The balloon pops the valve open, like an umbrella, to its full diameter, Makker said.
The study, published online in the New England Journal of Medicine ahead of the May print edition, found 68 percent of patients receiving standard medical therapy had died two years after being diagnosed, compared to 43 percent of patients who received the minimally invasive procedure.