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Atrial fibrillation: Risk factors, treatment and prevention

May 04, 2018

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), somewhere between 2.7 and 6.1 million Americans suffer from atrial fibrillation, commonly referred to as “afib.” By 2020, an estimated 10 million people in this country will be diagnosed with afib, with almost 10% of those being age 65 or older

Knowing the symptoms of afib, the risk factors, preventative steps and treatment can help improve quality of life for those who suffer from this kind of heart problem.

The basics

Atrial fibrillation is the most common form of arrhythmia, which occurs when the heart beats in an irregular pattern. It happens when the electrical impulses to the heart are not working correctly, interrupting the normal heartbeat.

In afib, the upper chambers of the heart, particularly the top left chamber or left atrium, beats chaotically at a rate of 400 to 600 beats per minute. This results in an uneven and irregular blood flow pattern, as well as variable heart rates, to the bottom chambers of the heart, which ultimately results in a heart rate that is too slow or too fast. Because of this, patients who have afib can experience a wide range of symptoms, including an irregular heartbeat; palpitations, which is when the heart beats rapidly, pounds harder than normal, or flutters; extreme fatigue; shortness of breath; and chest pain.

“Afib is highly symptomatic for the majority of our patients,” said Haseeb Jafri, MD, a cardiologist with Kettering Health Network. “Although afib is not a life-threatening arrhythmia, it profoundly impacts the quality of life of patients and has been associated with an increased risk of heart failure and dementia. People’s lives can be vastly improved if we can adequately identify and treat this kind of arrhythmia.”

Most common risk factors

Atrial fibrillation is most common among older people. Because they tend to live longer and the risks for afib increase with age, it affects women more than men. Those with sleep apnea or those who are mildly overweight can also be at a higher risk.

Outside influences and lifestyle choices also can lead to atrial fibrillation. Stress, inflammation in the body or infections can contribute to this kind of arrhythmia, as well.

“Any kind of stressful events, such as a surgical procedure or infection, can trigger afib,” Jafri says. “Even something as simple as a person who doesn’t hydrate well taking in more caffeine than they’re used to can provoke an episode.”

Treating afib

Treatment strategies for atrial fibrillation vary, depending on the patient’s situation. “Our top priority is treating the risk of stroke by initiating a blood thinner or considering a left atrial appendage closure device,” explains Dr. Jafri. “Once the risk for stroke has been assessed and treated, then we talk about the treatment of the actual arrhythmia, including medications and cardiac ablation to control the heart rate and rhythm.”

Cardiac ablation is a procedure that uses flexible catheters to deliver energy, either extreme hot or cold, to change the abnormal tissue of the heart in patients with afib and help correct the arrhythmia.

Preventing afib

As always, prevention is the best medicine. Even those already experiencing afib can do things to minimize its recurrence. The most important thing you can do to prevent the condition is to follow typical cardiovascular health recommendations, such as maintaining a healthy, low sodium diet; regular exercise; keeping weight under control; and treating any existing conditions such as high blood pressure. People who suffer from sleep apnea should make sure to have it properly treated, and if afib already is a concern for you, avoid triggers like excessive caffeine or stress.

Learn more

If you’d like to learn more about heart disease prevention and treatment options available through Kettering Health Network, you are invited to join us for an atrial fibrillation seminar on Wednesday, June 13, at Kettering Medical Center (3535 Southern Blvd.) beginning at 5:30 p.m. Light refreshments and a mini-health fair will be followed by a presentation from Dr. Jafri at 6 p.m.

This is a free event, but seating is limited, so click here to register now.