About 6 million adults in the United States suffer from a heart condition called atrial fibrillation (AFib). AFib is very common, but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious. Every year, AFib accounts for about 750,000 hospitalizations and contributes to about 130,000 deaths. But there are treatment options to help live a healthy life and strategies you can use to reduce your risk for AFib.
Catching AFib early: take any symptoms seriously
“AFib is an irregular heart rhythm originating from the top chambers of the heart, which frequently leads to fast heart rates but can also present with a normal or slow heart rate," says Parthiv Shah, MD, cardiologist and electrophysiologist with Kettering Physician Network Heart & Vascular. “Patients can experience palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, or pressure. Women especially can sometimes experience atypical symptoms like fatigue or weakness. In these cases, ignoring atypical symptoms can often lead to a delayed diagnosis.”
Dr. Shah urges women to consult with their primary care provider about any symptoms they feel unsure about. “Early signs of AFib can often be picked up during a primary care exam, where a primary care doctor can give a patient a referral to a cardiologist for further treatment and long-term monitoring.”
Specific risks for women
An important part of living with AFib is mitigating the risk of additional health complications or risks. Perhaps the biggest risk of AFib is the risk of stroke. In fact, many people aren’t aware that they have AFib until they suffer a stroke.
And this risk is even higher for women. “We’ve discovered more recently in studies that women have a higher risk of stroke,” says Dr. Shah. “In fact, being a woman is considered an independent risk factor for stroke.”
Initial treatment for AFib, says Dr. Shah, includes managing risk factors as much as possible. Controlling blood pressure, losing weight, or getting treatment for sleep apnea can all be part of this initial treatment.
Then, a cardiologist will often recommend a medication to help control the heart rate. This medication choice is tailored to each person based on age and personal risk factors. “If medications aren’t working well, then we can perform a catheter ablation, which involves putting a catheter in through the veins into the heart to modify the electrical flow inside the heart,” says Dr. Shah. This procedure can be done in place of medication or in conjunction with medication.
Reduce your risk
What can you do to decrease your chance of developing AFib in the first place? Dr. Shah emphasizes the importance of treating all underlying health conditions first, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or obesity. “Regular exercise and weight loss, along with a heart-healthy diet, have been shown to improve AFib symptoms quite a bit,” says Dr. Shah. “And excessive intake of alcohol or caffeine has been shown to worsen symptoms.” Dr. Shah recommends limiting alcohol and increasing intake of omega-3 fatty acids, either through diet or supplementation, to reduce your risk of AFib.
“AFib is common, so it’s worth getting any symptoms checked out,” says Dr. Shah. “The earlier we can diagnose and treat AFib, the more successful we are at controlling it.”
If you have any concerning symptoms or want to know more about your heart health and risk factors, request a heart screening with Kettering Health Network Heart & Vascular at ketteringhealth.org/heart