Jenny Garth’s Tell Tale Heart

Beverly Hills 90210 actress, and Dancing with the Stars celebrity Jenny Garth revealed to Access Hollywood that she was diagnosed with a heart condition. Garth is no stranger to heart disease, “I’ve been affected by heart disease practically my whole life,” she recently told Access, “My father has struggled with heart disease since he was 50 and I lost him a year ago.” Because of her strong family history of heart disease, she had yearly check ups. Seven years ago, she was diagnosed with what she calls a “common problem” of a “leaky valve” in her heart. As she describes it: “It’s your connection to your heart… your artery, the main artery that goes to your heart,” she said. “It sort of flutters open and shut sort of a thing, so you… it’s weird because sometimes when I’m resting I can feel a little weird fluttering.”

I must admit I’m a little stumped by this description. What heart disease does Jenny Garth really have? Blood vessels that bring blood into the heart, either from the lungs or from the rest of the body are called veins, with the names main pulmonary vein, or superior and inferior vena cava, respectively. Blood vessels that pump blood out from the heart to the lungs or to the rest of the body are called arteries-i.e. the pulmonary arteries and the aorta. So her description of her condition isn’t accurate or she misspoke.

The above illustration shows the inside of a healthy heart and its four valves. The blue arrow shows the direction in which oxygen-poor blood flows from the body to the right side of the heart and then out to the lungs. The red arrow shows the direction in which oxygen-rich blood flows back from the lungs and then out to the rest of the body.

“Leaky valves” implies that the heart valves do not close completely, allowing some blood to flow backwards across the valve. This is called valvular insufficiency (or regurgitation) and can happen at any of the four heart valves – the tricuspid and pulmonary valves on the right side of the heart, and the mitral and aortic valves on the left side of the heart. If the amount of “leakiness” is low this condition doesn’t restrict activities such as exercise. If the leak is larger, patients can have difficulty breathing, enlarged liver, swelling of ankles and feet, cyanosis (a blue tinge to the skin), chest pain, fatigue, or fluttering heart beat. Which symptoms occur will depend on which valve is involved.

One other kind of heart problem with a “floppy valve” is called mitral valve prolapse (MVP). In this situation the mitral valve – the valve between the upper and lower heart chamber on the left side of the heart –  balloons upward (prolapses) into the left atrium when the left ventricle contracts. This is a common condition and frequently remains asymptomatic, unless there is also mitral regurgitation which may lead to symptoms of irregular heart beat, fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, or dizziness or lightheadedness.

So, what heart disease does Jenny Garth have? We can’t tell the tale of her condition based on the information available. We’ll continue to follow her case and let you know if we learn more about her precise condition.

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Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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