Atrial fibrillation, also known as Afib or AF, is the most common heart rhythm irregularity (cardiac arrhythmia). According to the American Heart Association, about 2.7 million people are living with Afib.
Afib is caused when the electrical impulses that stimulate the heart to beat in a normal rhythm do not fire correctly, causing the heart to beat erratically. Because Afib is a significant risk factor for stroke, it is essential to work with your medical team to manage it. The likelihood of an individual developing Afib in the first place is heightened by certain risk factors.
Those who are affected by atrial fibrillation tend to be the following:
- Older people are more often affected by Afib than their younger counterparts, although younger people can develop Afib, particularly if other risk factors exist. Certain types of Afib, such as “holiday heart syndrome," are more common among otherwise healthy young people.
- Individuals who are overweight or obese are at an increased risk for developing Afib as well as many other health problems.
- Athletes: In some cases, an increase in physical exertion can bring on the symptoms of Afib because of the workload such exercise puts on the heart. For most people, exercise is a healthy habit that should be incorporated into daily life. It is generally recommended to talk with your doctor or other healthcare professional before starting a new exercise program or increasing the intensity of workouts. These conversations are good opportunities to ask questions about atrial fibrillation.
Risk Factors for Atrial Fibrillation
A number of factors can lead to the development of Afib. Some are lifestyle factors that constitute a risk to the heart. These might include being overweight, smoking or not exercising. In these situations, it is possible that you and your healthcare team can work together to eliminate these risk factors and eliminate the Afib altogether. Sometimes Afib is the result of other medical conditions, such as high blood pressure or stress related to surgery or other illnesses. Some people are born with congenital heart conditions that cause Afib.
If you have Afib, your healthcare team may recommend making changes to your lifestyle that could reduce or even eliminate your Afib. These recommendations might include -
- Drink less alcohol.
- Reduce your caffeine intake by switching to decaffeinated coffee, tea and soft drinks. Energy drinks contain a lot of caffeine, so your doctor may recommend that you drink less of these or avoid them completely.
- Quit smoking and using other forms of tobacco. You can learn more about how to quit here.
- Refrain from taking drugs. This usually means skipping recreational drugs, although prescription medications, over-the-counter drugs and supplements might play a role as well. Your doctor may adjust the medications you are taking for other conditions. It is important to tell your healthcare team about all of the medications and supplements you are taking.
- Maintain a healthy body weight: If you are overweight or obese, your healthcare team may recommend strategies for losing weight and keeping it off.
Medical Conditions Related to Afib
Some medical conditions, particularly those associated with the heart, raise the risk of Afib. Your doctor will need to know your past health history since, in many cases, this will affect how your Afib is treated. For example, your doctor may select or avoid certain medications or treatments based on your health history. Some of the medical conditions that might be related to Afib include the following:
- High blood pressure: The combination of high blood pressure and Afib greatly increases the risk of having a stroke.
- Coronary artery disease and heart attack: Afib is often associated with the build-up of blockages in the heart arteries. This is known as coronary artery disease, or CAD. If the blockages prevent blood from flowing through the arteries to the heart muscle, a heart attack occurs and emergency treatment is needed. If treatment is delayed or the heart attack is severe, the heart can sustain damage that results in congestive heart failure and atrial fibrillation. Learn more about heart attack and how it is treated here.
- Lung disease: Not only can lung disease trigger Afib, but so can the medications used to treat various types of lung disease.
- Previous heart surgeries: Afib often occurs after heart surgeries, either temporarily or permanently.
- Viral infections: Infections can cause Afib in some circumstances.
- Sick Sinus Syndrome: In sick sinus syndrome, the heart’s natural pacemaker (the sinus node) fires electrical impulses irregularly, spurring the heart to beat erratically and quiver.
- Congenital heart defects (heart problems present at birth) can be associated with Afib.
- Overactive thyroid and other metabolic disorders may trigger Afib.
- Sleep apnea: Research has shown that obstructive sleep apnea is associated with increased risk of Afib. In patients who have sleep apnea, breathing stops and starts multiple times during the sleep cycle, leading to daytime exhaustion and additional overall stress.
Regardless of lifestyle factors and medical conditions like these, some people have what doctors call familial atrial fibrillation. This means that Afib seems to have a strong hereditary component. Having a parent with Afib strongly increases the chance a child will also have it.
Atrial fibrillation is a serious condition that affects millions of people worldwide, putting them at risk for stroke and heart failure. Fortunately, great strides have been made in understanding the causes of Afib and how it can be managed and treated.
For more information, you can visit the SecondsCount Atrial Fibrillation Center here.