Now researchers are studying a new device that can help those too weak for surgery live longer lives.
Sherry and Hansen Watkins have been happily married for 13 years. But five years ago, sherry began noticing changes in her husband.
A successful businessman and an avid fox hunter, Hansen Watkins had always been active. When he became listless, he knew it was time to see a doctor.
Cardiologists found his heart had a leaky mitral valve, which allowed blood to seep back into his lungs.
"It tends to be progressive and the lungs then flood with fluid and then it becomes very hard to breathe, so it is like chronic drowning," said Dr. Lawrence O'Connor of Glendale Memorial Hospital.
Instead of open heart surgery, a tiny device is delivered through an artery in the leg up to the heart and placed on the leaky valve to close or clip it off. The operation takes about two hours.
A recent study in the Journal of the American College Of Cardiology found patients have not had any major side effects from the device so far.
Actress Elizabeth Taylor had the same procedure about a year ago.
"If medicine is no longer working, this is certainly an alternative to having the valve replaced," O'Connor said.
Watkins is doing so well, he and his wife took a trip to Nova Scotia after his procedure. That's something he said he could have never done five years ago.
Doctors say the ongoing results for this mitral valve procedure are promising, helping three out of four patients avoid open heart surgery.
The down time is minimal. Most patients are released from the hospital the next day.