Atrial fibrillation: How to stay healthy

Alicia Colombo

By Mary Anna Rodabaugh


Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib, is the most common type of arrhythmia. It occurs when the heartbeat has a very irregular, and often rapid, rhythm that can lead to blood clots in the heart. Since the heart’s chambers beat out of sync, causing an irregular blood flow, AFib could also cause a stroke.

More than 454,000 people are hospitalized each year for AFib, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The death rate from AFib as the primary or a contributing cause has steadily increased for more than two decades. It is estimated that 12.1 million Americans will have AFib in 2030.

There are steps you can take to reduce your risk for AFib and to control the condition if you have it.

“There are a number of risk factors for atrial fibrillation,” says Dr. Daniel Frisch, associate professor of medicine and director of the atrial fibrillation program at Thomas Jefferson University. “Certainly, the presence of other heart conditions, including hypertension, diabetes and coronary disease, contribute (to the risk of AFib). But other factors, such as sleep apnea and obesity, are important risk factors as well.”

Frisch notes there are lifestyle changes that can actively reduce the chances of getting AFib. For many cardiac conditions, a healthy lifestyle is paramount. Getting regular exercise, limiting alcohol intake to one drink per day, quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, and losing weight can positively influence a person’s overall health. Medicine is meant to be an add-on to adopting a healthy lifestyle and not the reverse.

Symptoms
Sometimes, AFib presents no symptoms. However, there are general symptoms that people with AFib tend to experience. These symptoms include a rapid heartbeat, a fluttering feeling of the heart, dizziness and shortness of breath. Atrial fibrillation can also cause unexplained fatigue or exercise intolerance.

“These are somewhat deceptive symptoms, but should nonetheless be taken seriously,” says Frisch.

If you have any of these symptoms, you should call your doctor to determine the underlying cause. If you experience chest pains, call 911.

Treatment
There are several categories of medications that may be used to treat AFib. Beta-blockers and calcium-channel blockers slow the heart rate down, but do not necessarily stop atrial fibrillation.

Anti-arrhythmic medicines are dedicated to suppressing atrial fibrillation. While unlikely to stop an episode of atrial fibrillation, they are helpful to preventing an AFib recurrence in patients who are in normal rhythm.

People with AFib may be prescribed anticoagulants or blood thinners. Of the three drug categories, blood thinners are arguably the most important because they can prevent blood clots, which could lead to a stroke.

Monitoring
There are tools that can be used to monitor atrial fibrillation, such as smart watches and fitness trackers.

“Personally, I am a big fan of wearable technology, and I recommend it to many of our patients,” says Frisch. “However, there are certain ‘rules of use’ that must be taken into consideration.”

First and foremost, patients should talk directly with their primary care physician and cardiologist to make sure both sides agree a commercially owned device is the best strategy for treatment.

“I certainly would not want one of my patients to think that I am receiving information (from the device), when I am not,” says Frisch. “I would also want to make sure the recordings that are sent over are of usable quality and actually help with the management of atrial fibrillation,”

Frisch has had many patients who do better when they use wearable technology, noting that the ability to document one’s own heart rhythm can be reassuring, whether or not that information is shared with the patient’s health care provider.

There are a lot of different treatment options to help people with atrial fibrillation to suppress the arrhythmia and reduce the risk of a stroke. If you think you have symptoms or want to learn more about this condition, please talk to your health care provider.


Mary Anna Rodabaugh is a writer, editor and writing coach.

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