Living Well: Atrial fibrillation risk increases with age
Atrial fibrillation, commonly known as AFib, is an irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia that can lead to serious complications if not treated properly.
Originating in the upper chambers of the heart, AFib can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications, said Dr. Gerald Myers, cardiologist and internal medicine physician at Memorial Regional Health.
About 2.7 to 6.1 million people in the United States have AFib, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Given the aging of the U.S. population, the number is expected to rise.
“A racing, pounding heartbeat that happens for no apparent reason should not be ignored, especially when other symptoms are also present, like shortness of breath with light physical activity or lightheadedness, dizziness or unusual fatigue,” according to the American Heart Association. “AFib is an irregular heartbeat or a condition in which the heart muscles fail to contract in a strong, rhythmic way. When a heart is in AFib, it may not be pumping enough oxygen-rich blood out to the body.”
Causes and risk
The three main causes of AFib are age, high blood pressure and obesity.
Symptoms of AFib include:
- General fatigue
- Rapid and irregular heartbeat
- Fluttering or “thumping” in the chest
- Shortness of breath and anxiety
- Faintness or confusion
- Fatigue when exercising
- Chest pain or pressure
Studies show that 80 percent of heart diseases, including AFib, are totally preventable, Dr. Myers said.
“AFib increases a person’s risk for stroke by four to five times compared with stroke risk for people who do not have AFib. Strokes caused by complications from AFib tend to be more severe than strokes with other underlying causes,” according to the CDC.
AFib causes 15 to 20 percent of ischemic strokes, which occur when blood flow to the brain is blocked by a clot or by fatty deposits called plaque.
“When the heart is in AFib, the blood can become static and can be left pooling inside the heart. When blood pools, a clot can form. When a clot is pumped out of the heart, it can get lodged in the arteries, which may cause a stroke,” according to the American Heart Association. “Blocked arteries prevent the tissue on the other side from getting oxygen-rich blood, and without oxygen, the tissue dies.”
Prevention and treatment
Living a healthy lifestyle — eating nutritious foods, exercising, maintaining a healthy body weight and other factors — is the most common way to prevent many diseases, and stroke is no different.
Typically people who have one or more of the following conditions are at higher risk for AFib:
- Advanced age: The number of adults developing AFib increases markedly with older age. Atrial fibrillation in children is rare, but it can and does happen.
- High blood pressure: Longstanding, uncontrolled high blood pressure can increase your risk for AFib.
- Underlying heart disease: Anyone with heart disease is at risk for AFib, including those with valve problems, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, acute coronary syndrome, Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome and history of heart attack. Additionally, atrial fibrillation is the most common complication after heart surgery.
- Drinking alcohol: Binge drinking (having five drinks in two hours for men, or four drinks for women) may put you at higher risk for AFib.
- Family history: Having a family member with AFib increases your chances of being diagnosed.
- Sleep apnea: Although sleep apnea isn’t proven to cause AFib, studies show a strong link between obstructive sleep apnea and AFib. Often, treating apnea can improve AFib.
- Athletes: AFib is common in athletes and can be triggered by a rapid heart rate called supraventricular tachycardia (SVT).
- Other chronic conditions: Others at risk are people with thyroid problems (specifically hyperthyroidism), diabetes, asthma and other chronic medical problems.
Source: American Heart Association
Board-certified clinical cardiologist Dr. Gerald Myers treats a wide array of cardiac conditions, ranging from high blood pressure to heart disease, and is available full-time to consult on diagnostic tests.
Call MRH at 970-826-2400 for more information or to schedule an appointment.
The American Heart Association recommends the following prevention methods for AFib:
- Get regular physical activity.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet, low in salt, saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol.
- Manage high blood pressure.
- Avoid excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine.
- Don’t smoke.
- Control cholesterol.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
If it’s too late for prevention, there are many options for treating AFib. Dr. Myers said most individuals require the continuation of anticoagulation and rate-slowing medications once the diagnosis of atrial fibrillation is made. If an AFib ablation procedure is successful, these agents may be discontinued, he said.
“At MRH, we have the ability to prescribe medications, monitor the condition and perform electrical cardioversion. If an ablation or other more invasive procedure is required, it needs to be performed at the larger medical centers in Denver, Fort Collins or Colorado Springs,” Dr. Myers said.