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Got Rhythm? Atrial Fibrillation and its Effect on Your Health

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Got Rhythm? Atrial Fibrillation and its Effect on Your Health

Atrial fibrillation is a disturbance in the electrical impulse of the heart. A heart in atrial fibrillation sounds more like popcorn popping than it does a steady tick of a clock, as it should.

The disorganized rhythm of a heart in atrial fibrillation originates in multiple locations in the upper chambers of the heart, rather than in one spot in the top of the heart, where the beat of a healthy heart originates.

The incidence of atrial fibrillation in young people is very rare. Risk of the condition increases with age as other risk factors, such as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease also increase.  Research shows that about one in four men and women will develop atrial fibrillation at some point in their lifetime. A patient in his or her sixties has a two to four percent chance of developing the condition, but that risk dramatically increases for individuals in their eighties.

Nina Radford, MD, Director of Clinical Research at Cooper Clinic explains atrial fibrillation, its symptoms and how it can be prevented.

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation affects the normal sinus rhythm of the heart. The condition can vary from one patient to the next. Some people may only experience the condition once or twice, while others may go in and out of atrial fib (intermittent atrial fibrillation) over a period of time.  Other patients may be in atrial fibrillation for long periods of time or even all the time.

Atrial fibrillation is considered a progressive disease. Patients who go into atrial fibrillation will likely experience it more frequently over time unless specific interventions are taken.

What are the health consequences of atrial fibrillation?

The health consequences of atrial fib depend largely on the presence or absence of symptoms. Some patients may never experience symptoms and may not know they are in atrial fib. They may only become aware of it after going in for a routine health checkup.

Other people may have a sense of their irregular heartbeat. They may notice heart palpitations, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, chest pain or fainting, among other symptoms. Atrial fibrillation with noticeable symptoms may impact the patient’s every day life.

In cases where atrial fib is symptomatic, the goal is to control the heart rate so it’s not fast, or to convert the heart rate back to sinus rhythm through therapies such as shocking the heart, medication or ablation

In addition to distracting and sometimes painful symptoms, atrial fibrillation can also increase the risk of stroke. One purpose of the heart beat is to keep blood flowing throughout the body. With atrial fib, there is not a rhythmic contraction of the atrial chamber to empty it out. When blood in the chamber isn’t mixed around, blood clots can develop. Those clots can leave the heart, travel to the head and cause a stroke.

Some people are at higher risk for stroke than others. People with a history of heart disease, stroke, heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes or who are 75 years old or older are at higher risk of stroke. The diagnosis of atrial fibrillation is critical to begin therapy to reduce the risk of stroke.

What are the risk factors of atrial fibrillation?

There are several risk factors associated with atrial fibrillation. Reducing or eliminating these risk factors can reduce the risk of atrial fib. Some of these risk factors are treatable and reversible, but some are not. Potential risk factors include:

  • Overactive thyroid
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • High blood pressure or hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • Existing valve conditions

In some cases, atrial fibrillation is an indicator of another health condition the patient was not aware of, such as high blood pressure, heart disease or a leaky valve.

How is atrial fibrillation detected?

Because atrial fib does not always present symptoms for the patient, an annual health exam is critical in diagnosing the condition. However, if you do notice signs or symptoms of the condition, alert your doctor.

For example, if you measure your heart rate with a blood pressure cuff at home or on a machine at the fitness center and notice that your heart rate is jumping around, that may be a sign of atrial fib.

The bottom line is that it’s critically important to see your physician regularly. Symptoms can be so subtle that you may not recognize them on your own, but your doctor may be able to pick up on signs of the condition through a routine exam and simply discussing your health and lifestyle.

Article provided by Cooper Aerobics Marketing and Communications.