Jansen Panettiere died of an 'enlarged heart': Here's what that means

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

The loss of actor Jansen Panettiere, the 28-year-old younger brother of Hayden Panettiere, found dead Feb. 19, has left the family reeling.

Hayden and her parents, Skip Panettiere and Lesley Vogel, released a statement that read, in part: "It is with great sorrow we share the tremendous, untimely loss of our beautiful Jansen. Though it offers little solace, the Medical Examiner reported Jansen's sudden passing was due to cardiomegaly (enlarged heart), coupled with aortic valve complications."

The sad development also has put the spotlight on Jansen's condition — one that affects many others, as Dr. Jeffrey Teuteberg, a heart failure cardiologist at Stanford Health Care who was not involved in Panettiere's care, explains to Yahoo.

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

What is cardiomegaly?

The American Heart Association's volunteer expert, Dr. Shriprasad R. Deshpande, medical director of the Heart Transplant and Advanced Cardiac Therapies Program at Children's National Hospital, who also wasn't part of Panettiere's medical team, gave a clear definition: "Cardiomegaly is enlargement of the chambers of the heart, and specifically, the pumping chamber (ventricle) of the heart. This usually leads to less effective pumping of the heart and eventually may lead to heart failure."

One of the causes can be valve leaks, although it's unclear if that were the case here.

As Teuteberg tells us, "When valves are either very leaky or very tight, that can over time impact the function of the heart and the heart can get bigger as a result of that."

What are the symptoms?

As the heart becomes enlarged and weaker, people could find themselves tiring more quickly.

"There may be a decrease in exercise capacity, they may have a fast heartbeat, and sometimes they may experience syncope (blackout/passing out)," Deshpande says. "In children, the only presenting symptom may be breathing problems and stomach pains or loss of appetite. Serious presentations are sudden cardiac arrest, which may result in sudden death."

But it's tricky, because cardiomegaly often masquerades as other conditions, such as asthma. The sign could be something as subtle as a loss of appetite or stomach pain after eating.

And Teuteberg warns that younger people who don't have other medical problems might not even notice that they're not able to ride their bike as far as they used to or play basketball for as long. But they should.

"Sometimes people will develop things like swelling in their belly or swelling in their feet, when it's been around for a long time and it's getting a little bit worse," Teuteberg says. "Sometimes people may have palpitations or feel their heart racing as well, because having heart arrhythmia is more common for people who have a weak heart muscle."

How is cardiomegaly diagnosed?

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

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

Can cardiomegaly be treated?

Yes, and the treatments can vary widely. Patients can often manage heart failure or irregular heartbeats with medication. In the case of severe valve leakage, Deshpande says valve surgery or valve replacement may 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 may use small mechanical pumps to stabilize the person so they can be bridged to transplantation."

Again, both physicians advise patients to visit their doctor with concerns.