With proper treatment and lifestyle modifications, atrial fibrillation (AFib) doesn’t have to stop you from living a long and healthy life.
Most of us know something about heart disease and have been warned about what may cause it, but what about atrial fibrillation (AFib)? How much do you know about it and its connection to heart failure and stroke?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), AFib is the most common type of treated cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. Research by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) shows that as many as one million patients with AFib have been cared for by VA over the past decade.
Because AFib is associated with an increased risk for blood clots, congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, and stroke, it’s important to understand AFib, its symptoms, the risk factors associated with it, and the treatments available to manage it.
According to the CDC, AFib occurs when the heart beats too slowly, too fast, or in an irregular way. When a person has AFib, the normal beating in the upper chambers of the heart is irregular, and blood doesn’t flow as well as it should to the lower chambers of the heart. Because not enough blood is being pumped out of the heart’s upper chambers, blood can pool in the area and clot, or move to the brain and cause a stroke.
Some people with AFib don’t notice any symptoms and aren’t even aware that they have it. Others may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Heart palpations, or feelings of a fast, fluttering or pounding heartbeat
- Irregular heartbeat
- Extreme fatigue
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
AFib episodes may come and go, or they may be persistent. Learning the signs and symptoms of AFib may help you get an early diagnosis and reduce your risk for serious complications.
What Are the Risk Factors for AFib?
While anyone – men and women, and from children to adults in age – can develop AFib, the CDC reports there are several risk factors associated with AFib. These include:
- Advancing age
- High blood pressure
- Underlying heart disease
- Moderate to heavy alcohol use
- Chronic kidney disease
What Complications Can Come From AFib?
AFib itself isn’t usually life-threatening, but there are dangerous complications that can arise if AFib goes untreated, including:
- Increased risk for stroke – According to the American Heart Association, AFib causes about 1 in 7 strokes.
- Blood clots – Blood clots can form when blood pools in your heart’s upper chambers, travel to other areas of the body and cause serious damage, including a stroke.
- Heart-related death – The American Heart Association states that untreated AFib doubles your risk for heart-related deaths.
What AFib Treatments Are Available?
If you’re diagnosed with AFib, your specific treatment may be designed to reduce your heart rate, restore your heart to a normal rhythm, prevent blood clots and manage your risk for stroke. According to the CDC, treatment of AFib may include:
- Medicines to control the heart’s rhythm and rate
- Blood thinners to prevent blood clots from forming and reduce your risk for stroke
- Surgery, such as implanting a pacemaker
- Medicine and healthy lifestyle changes to manage AFib risk factors
What Steps Can I Take to Reduce My Risk for AFib?
- Get regular health care. By getting routine health care, you can ensure you’re regularly checking your blood pressure and cholesterol levels and keeping them within a healthy range. Both high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels are connected to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Know the signs. If you notice any symptoms related to AFib, such as a fluttering heart or extreme fatigue, be sure to discuss them with your health care provider. Your health care provider can help you determine next steps and whether or not you should see a cardiologist.
- Get regular exercise. The American Heart Association recommends starting with a goal of 150 minutes of activity each week. Check out Do Your Best to Find Ways to Be More Active if you need some inspiration or new ideas on how to get moving.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. A diet that’s low in salt, saturated fats and cholesterol can help you maintain a healthy heart. Check out these heart-friendly tips and recipes.
- Quit smoking. People who smoke are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. When you quit, within a year your risk of coronary heart disease is about half of that of a smoker and in five years, your stroke risk is reduced to that of a nonsmoker.
Check out American Heart Month: Try These Tips to Stay Heart Healthy for more ideas on improving the health of your heart and reducing your risk for major complications from AFib.
- The American Heart Association offers resources related to AFib, including information on treatments and prevention, as well as PDFs you can print to help you record your medications, track your symptoms and more.
- The Million Hearts initiative aims to reduce stroke and heart attack rates with resources such as heart-healthy recipes, fact sheets and more.
- VA offers a variety of services for eligible Veterans to promote health and wellness, including diagnosing and treating heart disease, as well as life-long risk reduction. Talk to your primary care provider to assess your risk for AFib and get help creating a heart health plan.
With proper treatment and lifestyle modifications, AFib doesn’t have to stop you from living a long and healthy life.