About heart defects

Congenital heart disease is the most common malformation present at birth. About eight out of 1000 people (0.8%) are affected, and this figure is about the same all over the world. While the individual heart defect may be insignificant and disappear over time, it may also be extremely serious and hence life-threatening. About 40% of the malformations are more complex, requiring special care and even a number of operations.

Congenital heart defects can have varying degrees of severity and a wide range of symptoms. A relatively minor congenital heart defect can rapidly turn into a symptomatic one, allowing it to be readily detected and treated. On the other hand, major defects may be compensated and remain latent for a long time until secondary effects appear, precluding an otherwise possible therapeutic approach.

The diagnostic categories established by the Association Européenne des Paediatres Cardiaques include more than 2000 congenital cardiac defects, which may occur singly or in combination. The type of follow-up and treatment will therefore vary accordingly. Most heart conditions are simple, minor disorders. Each child must be treated individually, and both the child and its parents should be given adequate information on the child’s condition, treatment and prospects of a normal life.

We do not know why some children are born with heart defects. The disease is not hereditary, though it does occur slightly more frequently in some families than in others. About 20% of children with congenital heart defects also suffer from another congenital disease. For example, about one third of children with congenital heart defects suffer from Down’s syndrome (Trisomy 21). Numerous other factors (viral infections, medication, chemicals etc.) may also affect the development of the heart if they occur at critical stages of pregnancy.

Because of today’s improved diagnostics and treatment, an increasing number of children with congenital heart defects will reach adulthood. This is especially true of children with the most serious forms of heart defects. Many children who would have had little chance of survival a few years ago may now be looking forward to a life only marginally affected by their illness. Nowadays, the way patients themselves perceive their condition and whether they are confident with their situation is the most important aspect of their satisfaction with life.