Updated: 3/23/2011 4:30 p.m.
Elizabeth Taylor made the hearts race for decades, but it was her own heart that failed in the end.
The 79-year-old actress died today from congestive heart failure, a condition that she fought for almost eight years.
The disease develops slowly as the heart muscle gradually weakens, causing it to pump less blood. The condition’s most common cause is coronary artery disease, which often brings on a loss of synchronization (and therefore pumping efficiency) between the two lower chambers of the heart. It results in fatigue, swelling in the feet and ankles and even confusion, among other uncomfortable and potentially deadly symptoms. It affects five million Americans and takes the lives of 20 percent of its victims within one year of diagnosis, according to the American Heart Assn.
How did Taylor survive so long with such a debilitating disease?
Besides her access to highly qualified doctors and a better-than-average financial status, Taylor could have been treated with numerous medical devices.
With five million Americans living with heart failure and 400,000 new diagnoses each year, the disease is a huge market for companies like Medtronic Inc. (NYSE:MDT), Boston Scientific Corp. (NYSE:BSX) and St. Jude Medical Inc. (NYSE:STJ). Fridley, Minn.-based Medtronic, the largest medical device company in the world, last year boasted revenues of $5.27 billion from its cardiac rhythm disease management division, which makes cardiac resynchronization therapy devices. The sophisticated electronic implants, which control the heart’s rhythm with electrical pulses, range from $25,000 to $35,000 apiece — not including $50,000 in hospital fees from the implantation procedure.
Another cardiac helper, the left ventricular assist device made by companies like Framingham, Mass.-based HeartWare International Inc. (NSDQ:HTWR) and Thoratec Corp. (NSDQ:THOR), is a tiny pump that helps the heart get get more oxygenated blood to the body’s extremities. It recently made news when former vice president Dick Cheney was implanted with one. HeartWare last week submitted an application to the FDA for its latest model.
Five years after the 2004 announcement that Taylor was suffering from heart failure, she underwent surgery to repair a leaky valve, a condition that might have exacerbated her underlying cardiac condition. Taylor received an experimental device called the MitraClip that was developed by Evalve, which is now owned by Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT), according to theheart.org.* The MitraClip is a percutaneously-inserted mitral valve repair system that is currently undergoing clinical research and not available to the general public.
Heart valve replacements, like the one manufactured by Edwards Lifesciences Inc. (NYSE:EW), have come a long way in recent years. But that technology wasn’t enough to keep Taylor out of the hospital for long. After new symptoms related to heart failure surfaced last month, she was admitted into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for more treatment.
Taylor won Academy Awards for Best Actress in 1960 (Butterfield 8) and 1966 (Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf) and landed Oscar nominations for her roles in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly, Last Summer and Raintree County. She achieved stardom at age 12 in National Velvet and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1999.
*Correction, March 23, 2011: This article originally stated that Elizabeth Taylor received a heart valve replacement in 2009. This is not the case; she received a “clip” device to repair her mitral valve. Return to the corrected sentence.