What is an “enlarged heart”?

Jansen, Hayden Panettiere's brother, has died aged 28.  (Photo: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

Hayden Panettiere’s brother Jansen has died aged 28. (Photo: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

The loss of actor Jansen Panettiere, the 28-year-old younger brother of Hayden Panettiere, who was found dead on February 19, has left the family in shock.

Hayden and his parents, Skip Panettiere and Lesley Vogel, released a statement that read, in part, “It is with great sadness that we share the tremendous and untimely loss of our beautiful Jansen. Although it offers little of reassurance, the medical examiner reported the sudden death was due to cardiomegaly (enlarged heart), coupled with aortic valve complications.”

The sad development also shed light on Jansen’s condition – a condition that affects many others, as explained by Dr. Jeffrey Teuteberg, a heart failure cardiologist at Stanford Health Care who has not been involved in Panettiere’s care, at Yahoo.

“There are millions of Americans who have some degree of cardiomegaly,” he says, noting that it’s much more common for someone who is, say, 58, than Panettiere’s age.

What is cardiomegaly?

Dr. Shriprasad R. Deshpande of the American Heart Association, medical director of the Heart Transplantation and Advanced Cardiac Therapies Program at Children’s National Hospital, who was also not part of Panettiere’s medical team, gave a clear definition: “Cardiomegaly is the enlargement of the chambers of the heart, and specifically the pumping chamber (ventricle) of the heart. This usually leads to less efficient pumping of the heart and can eventually lead to heart failure.

One of the causes may be valve leaks, although it’s unclear if that was the case here.

As Teuteberg tells us, “When the valves are either very tight or very tight, this can over time impact the function of the heart and the heart can enlarge as a result.”

What are the symptoms?

As the heart grows and weakens, people can tire more quickly.

“There may be a decrease in exercise capacity, they may have a rapid heartbeat, and sometimes they may experience syncope (fainting/passing out),” Deshpande says. “In children, the only presenting symptom may be breathing problems and stomach pain or loss of appetite. Serious presentations are sudden cardiac arrest, which can lead to sudden death.”

But that’s tricky, because cardiomegaly often masquerades as other conditions, like asthma. The sign could be something as subtle as loss of appetite or stomach pain after eating.

And Teuteberg warns that youngsters who don’t have other medical conditions might not even notice that they aren’t able to cycle as far as they used to or play basketball for as long. But they should.

“Sometimes people develop things like belly swelling or swelling in the feet, when it’s been going on for a long time and it gets a little worse,” Teuteberg says. “Sometimes people may experience palpitations or feel their heart racing, as cardiac arrhythmia is more common in people with weak heart muscle.”

How is cardiomegaly diagnosed?

Don’t panic, though, because none of these symptoms alone means you have heart disease. You just need to get checked out if you notice anything or cardiomegaly runs in the family. (Deshpande notes that these patients are usually diagnosed within their first two years of life.)

Your doctor can examine you with an electrocardiogram and, if necessary, use an echocardigram (an ultrasound of the heart), which is used to diagnose the disease.

Can cardiomegaly be treated?

Yes, and treatments can vary widely. Patients can often manage heart failure or irregular heartbeats with medication. In the case of a severe valve leak, Deshpande says valve surgery or valve replacement can be helpful.

“If there is severe enlargement of the heart,” he says, “heart transplantation may be the best option. Sometimes, if the enlargement is severe, we can use small mechanical pumps to stabilize the person so that it can be bridged to transplantation.”

Again, both doctors advise patients to consult their doctor if they have any concerns.

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