What It Means for Your Heart
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm, or arrhythmia. AFib is an irregular heartbeat that prevents the top chambers of the heart from contracting normally. Cardiac Electrophysiologist Nishant Verma, MD, MPH, explains, “When the electrical system is functioning normally, the top chambers, or atria, function as the heart’s natural pacemaker. The atria sends out an electrical signal that is communicated to the lower chambers, or ventricles. How many times the ventricles contract per minute is what determines your pulse rate.” A heart’s natural rhythm while you are at rest is typically 60 to 100 beats per minute. During AFib, the atria can quiver as much as 300 to 600 times per minute.
Age is the biggest risk factor for AFib. However, many of the most common ailments also predispose you to developing AFib, including high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease, obesity and obstructive sleep apnea. More than 2.7 million people have AFib in the United States, and that number continues to increase as the as the population ages.
Increased Risk for Stroke
Since the atria are beating so chaotically, they cannot completely empty all the blood in the top chambers. This allows the blood to pool in the upper chambers of the heart, and blood that sits in one place is more prone to clotting. If a clot develops and flows through the circulatory system to the brain, it can lead to a stroke.
While the abnormal heart rhythm itself is not life-threatening, stroke is the most serious consequence of AFib and stroke prevention is one of the most important aspects of AFib management. AFib is thought to be responsible for 15 to 20 percent of all strokes, particularly in individuals who are 65 and older.
Symptoms of AFib
The sooner AFib is diagnosed, the more likely you are to get appropriate treatment. Though some people do not feel their AFib, the most common symptoms include:
- Heart palpitations
- Irregular pulse
- Trouble breathing or fatigue (often the most common)
- Sensation of tightness in the chest
Your Fight Against AFib
Your best weapon to fight AFib and other types of heart disease is by giving your lifestyle a healthy boost. Stock your pantry with heart-healthy foods that are low in sodium and fat, maintain a healthy weight and stay active. Also make sure that your known health problems are being actively addressed and kept under control.
If you are diagnosed with AFib, treatment options include medications to control the heart rate or rhythm, blood thinners to prevent blood clot formation, and medical and surgical procedures.
Consult your physician to see if you are at risk.