Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is an irregular or abnormal heartbeat in the upper chambers of the heart. It’s the most common electrical problem of the heart. It is estimated that AFib is affecting nearly 3.78 million people in the United States, and it is predicted that by the year 2030 the U.S. will have nearly 12.1 million people with this condition, calling it an epidemic.
Although AFib by itself is not a lethal disease, if left untreated it can result in severe strokes, lead to heart failure, and is associated with increased risk of death. AFib affects primarily older adults, and the risk of developing AFib increases with age. AFib alone increases stroke risk by 500 percent.
Normally, an electrical signal controls the rate and rhythm of the heartbeat. In AFib, an abnormality in this electrical system causes the upper chambers, called the atria, to beat fast and irregular. The beating is so fast the atria “quiver” instead of squeezing. When the atria quiver, they cannot pump as much blood into the lower chambers as they normally do. Some blood stays in the atria and can form clots which can cause a stroke. If left untreated, over time the heart muscle weakens leading to heart failure.
Sometimes people with AFib have no symptoms at all, and it is only detected during a routine doctor visit. Other people might experience one or more of the following symptoms:
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▪ A racing, fluttering, pounding or irregular-feeling heartbeat
▪ Fatigue, dizziness or lightheadedness
▪ Shortness of breath or fainting
▪ Anxiety, feeling nervous, restless
There is no one cause of AFib. Some people have it for no known reason. Some factors that can trigger AFib include increased stress, too much alcohol consumption, caffeine intake, and stimulants found in some decongestant medicines and recreational drugs. Other conditions that can cause AFib are:
▪ High blood pressure
▪ Sleep apnea
▪ Thyroid disease
▪ Coronary artery disease
▪ Mitral valve disease
▪ Heart failure
▪ Recent heart or lung surgery
▪ Age older than 60
Everyone who has AFib, regardless of symptoms, needs to be evaluated for stroke risk. There continues to be many advances in medical technology that can help treat AFib effectively. If you are diagnosed with AFib, you need to establish care with a cardiologist and discuss treatment options. You can live a long, healthy and active life with AFib, but you have to be proactive with your health.
Stephanie Turner, a registered nurse, is the AFib/heart rhythm program coordinator at Baptist Health Lexington.