A leaking heart valve, or heart valve regurgitation, causes blood to flow backward in the heart. A person’s life expectancy with a leaking heart valve depends on which valve is leaking, the leak’s severity, and whether treatment is needed.

In a healthy heart, valves control the direction of blood, making it flow throughout the body. There are four main valves in the heart:

  • aortic
  • mitral
  • pulmonary, or pulmonic
  • tricuspid

If any of these valves become leaky, it can cause some blood to flow backward, forcing the heart to work harder and slowing the flow of blood throughout the body.

A leaking heart valve may cause symptoms in people with severe cases. Without treatment, the condition can reduce a person’s life expectancy.

Read on to learn more about the life expectancy of people with leaking heart valve disorders.

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Left untreated, leaking heart valves may:

  • increase the risk of heart arrhythmias
  • lead to harmful blood clots
  • cause sudden cardiac death
  • cause heart failure

However, not all types of leaking heart valves are life threatening or require surgery. For example, many people with tricuspid valve regurgitation do not have symptoms.

Learn more about leaky heart valve conditions.

Many factors affect the life expectancy of someone with a leaky heart valve. Factors to consider include:

  • which valve leaks and how severe the leak is
  • whether a person needs surgery and is able to undergo surgery
  • how early a doctor diagnoses and treats the leaky valve, and whether the leak has damaged the heart
  • a person’s overall health, and whether they have other medical conditions that might complicate a leaky heart valve
  • a person’s age

Generally, leaking heart valves that are left untreated can impact life expectancy.

Aortic regurgitation

Aortic valve regurgitation affects 4.9–10% of the U.S. population. It causes more deaths than other types of leaky valves.

With aortic regurgitation, a person might have no symptoms. However, this condition tends to progress over time and can cause symptoms that need treatment. People with a severe form of the disease may experience:

In the early stages of the disease, doctors recommend monitoring for the development of symptoms. Once a person develops symptoms, their risk of pulmonary edema, congestive heart failure, and other serious complications increases.

Older research from 1999 notes that without surgery, the outlook for people who have symptomatic, severe aortic valve regurgitation is poor, with around 28% surviving 3 years or longer. However, treatment can improve life expectancy.

Mitral regurgitation

Mitral regurgitation may also cause no symptoms. Similar to aortic regurgitation, long-term survival depends on symptoms, if any, and disease severity. However, this condition increases the risk of dying over time.

Mitral regurgitation has two main categories: primary and secondary. Surgery has not been shown to improve long-term survival in people with secondary mitral regurgitation.

A 2009 study, found that the annual rate of death for people over age 50 with mitral regurgitation was 3% with moderate disease and 6% with severe disease.

Another study from 2009 — involving 144 people — found a 5-year death rate of 30% for mitral regurgitation compared with 13% in an age-matched control group.

Tricuspid regurgitation

Tricuspid regurgitation sometimes causes no symptoms. When this happens, doctors may recommend only monitoring the condition.

If people do develop symptoms, doctors may then recommend treatment. However, treatment depends on the symptoms’ severity. Treatment may not always require surgery, either.

Researchers in a 2018 paper emphasize that tricuspid regurgitation left untreated can worsen long-term survival and may complicate other medical conditions. Still, a person’s specific survival rate without treatment depends on the severity of their disease.

Pulmonary regurgitation

Significant pulmonary regurgitation is rare. Sometimes it is an isolated issue that might cause no noticeable symptoms. More often, an underlying heart health problem causes symptoms rather than pulmonary regurgitation itself.

Left untreated, pulmonary regurgitation can cause:

In most cases, doctors focus on managing the underlying cause of pulmonary regurgitation, like pulmonary hypertension.

Treatment can improve symptoms and quality of life. It can also prolong a person’s life.

However, treatment may pose risks for some people. Therefore, doctors must weigh the benefits of treatment against its potential risks.

Mitral regurgitation

Generally, mitral regurgitation surgery can improve overall survival.

Surgery to repair or replace mitral valves can pose significant risks. Research from 2013 has found a 3.9% death rate during mitral valve repair surgery and an 8.9% death rate for mitral valve replacement surgery.

However, a 2018 study involving 83 people who sought treatment for asymptomatic mitral regurgitation found that surgery can restore a person’s quality of life and a typical life expectancy. Participants had an average age of 56. The 10-year survival rate after surgery was 91.5%.

Pulmonary regurgitation

The need for surgery to treat pulmonary regurgitation remains controversial. Surgery is typically only reserved for people who have symptoms.

Severe symptoms of pulmonary regurgitation include:

For people who are not good candidates for surgery, doctors may prescribe medication, such as:

Treatment can improve survival and reduce the risk of arrhythmias. However, a specific survival rate depends on the person, as well as any underlying conditions that caused the leaky valve.

Aortic regurgitation

Aortic valve replacement can improve life expectancy.

However, a person’s life expectancy may still be reduced compared with the general population, depending on their age, overall health, and disease severity. According to a 2014 study, this reduction in life expectancy may be higher in people aged 50 and younger.

In a 2021 study involving 8,353 people over age 60 who had an aortic valve replacement, researchers found median survival rates of:

  • 10.9 years in low risk participants
  • 7.3 years in intermediate risk participants
  • 5.8 years in high risk participants

Tricuspid regurgitation

With surgery, the outlook and long-term survival for tricuspid regurgitation are poor.

In one 2009 study, researchers followed 315 people who had received mitral valve replacement or repair surgery from 1985 to 2006. They found the following:

  • Survival rates were similar across both groups.
    • In the replacement cohort, survival was 85% at 1 year and 49% at 10 years.
    • In the repair cohort, survival was 80% at 1 year and 66% at 10 years.
  • Similar percentages of people died as a result of having surgery in the replacement and repair groups.

However, a person’s specific survival depends on their overall health status.

Predicting life expectancy in older adults with leaky valves can be challenging because of the risks of surgery itself. In addition, older adults are more likely to have comorbidities that complicate leaky heart valves. These comorbidities might include:

  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • high levels of fats in the blood
  • kidney disease
  • frailty
  • vascular disease, which can also affect survival after valve surgery

Research from 2013 assessed the impact of mitral valve surgery in adults aged 65 and over. Researchers found a better life expectancy in this population than previously studied.

Researchers also found that surgery can improve symptoms and a person’s quality of life. On the basis of these findings, researchers recommend surgery for all people, regardless of their age.

When a heart valve leaks, the heart cannot effectively control the flow of blood. Over time, this can damage the heart and cause a range of complications.

The specific complications that arise depend on a person’s health and the type of heart valve regurgitation they have.

Surgery to treat leaky heart valves may also carry some risks. These include:

A leaky heart valve may not have any symptoms. In other cases, it may cause a range of symptoms. Life expectancy depends on many factors, including a person’s overall health and age, and the severity of the leak.

In many cases, the leaky valves get worse with time. It is important to seek prompt treatment if a person thinks they might have a leaking heart valve or any other heart health problem. The sooner a doctor can make a diagnosis, the sooner monitoring or treatment can start.