Everything You Need to Know About Atrial Fibrillation

Also called AFib, this arrhythmia results in a rapid, irregular heartbeat.

woman checking pulse exercising
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Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib, is the most common type of arrhythmia, a condition where the heart beats irregularly. It currently affects at least 2.7 million Americans, and it's estimated that it will affect a whopping 12.1 million Americans by the year 2030, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "With AFib, the atria, the two upper chambers of the heart, fail to contract in a strong, rhythmic way," explains Richard Shlofmitz, M.D., the Chairman of Cardiology at St. Francis Heart Center. "When a heart is in AFib, it may not be pumping enough blood out to the body, which can lead to a host of complications such as blood clots, stroke, and even heart failure."

Like many health and heart conditions, the risk for developing AFib increases with age, with 70 percent of sufferers between the ages of 65 and 85 years, according to research published in the journal Vascular Health and Risk Management. That being said, Shephal Doshi, M.D., cardiac electrophysiologist and director of cardiac electrophysiology and pacing at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, notes that young people can also develop this irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia. "A common associated diagnosis is high blood pressure or hypertension, which is present in many patients diagnosed with atrial fibrillation," he says.

In addition to palpitations or rapid and irregular heart beat, a common symptom related to AFib is fatigue, notes Nikhil Warrier, M.D., a cardiac electrophysiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. "Weakness, dizziness, and lightheadedness can also be associated with both rapid and slow heart rates in Afib," he says. Here are some more of the most important facts about AFib that cardiologists want you to know.

It increases one's risk of stroke by over five times.

If you have AFib, you have a greater risk of having a stroke, according to the American Heart Association. "This is especially challenging for people who have no awareness of an abnormality in their heartbeats. Often, the first symptom is a stroke," notes Dr. Shephal. "This is why strategies designed to reduce one's risk for stroke are paramount to the management of atrial fibrillation."

You may be prescribed a blood-thinning medication.

One of the most popular treatments for AFib is a blood-thinning medication, which helps reduce the risk of blood clots from forming and potentially causing a stroke. "This typically involves the use of oral anticoagulants commonly known as blood thinners as a first-line strategy," says Dr. Shephal. "For patients who are intolerant or unable to take blood thinners, there are minimally invasive strategies that can reduce one's risk of stroke without them."

Heart failure and atrial fibrillation together are common.

"Up to 50 percent of those with a new diagnosis of heart failure also suffer from atrial fibrillation; approximately one third with new-onset AFib have congestive heart failure," says Dr. Warrier. In other words, it's not uncommon for the two conditions to coexist. Dr. Shlofmitz points out that AFib will not cause a heart attack. It can weaken the heart over time, however, if the heart rate is not controlled.

If treated, someone with AFib can maintain a normal lifestyle.

"Controlling risk factors for heart disease and stroke and knowing what can trigger AFib will help improve long-term management of the condition," says Dr. Shlofmitz; triggers include over-exertion, poor sleep, alcohol, hormones, dehydration, and caffeine. "Additionally, a physician can help with lifelong management of AFib."

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