Atrial fibrillation, a heart condition also known as AFib, currently affects about 2.3 million people in the United States. That number is expected to double in the coming decades and, for reasons that aren’t fully understood, the condition can be particularly dangerous for women. Studies show that women with AFib are at significantly higher risk of stroke, heart attack, and death compared to men.
So, what is Afib exactly? Normally, the heart sends out electrical signals that make it contract and relax in a regular rhythm (these are the electrical signals that appear on an electrocardiogram, or ECG, readout.) In atrial fibrillation, however, the heart’s upper chambers (atria) beat irregularly and too fast. As a result, the body can’t get all the oxygen it needs.
Over time, this can lead to conditions such as heart failure, chronic fatigue, and additional heart rhythm problems. One of the most serious consequences of AFib is stroke: The risk of stroke is about 5 times high in people with AFib, because blood clots can form when blood pools in the atria. Research also shows that the strokes caused by AFib tend to be more severe than strokes from other causes.
What are the symptoms of AFib?
Some people have no symptoms of AFib, but others may experience:
- Heart palpitations (fluttering or thumping)
- Dizziness, sweating, and chest pain or pressure
- Extreme fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Tiring easily during exercise
Who’s at risk?
“We’re seeing more women with AFib,” says Gopi Dandamudi, MD, cardiac electrophysiologist at Indiana University Health. “And even though the disease usually affects people over 60, we’re seeing more and more people at a younger age—even as young as their 20s.”
AFib can be caused by a combination of factors, including:
- Advancing age
- Heart failure
- Ischemic heart disease
- Chronic kidney disease
- Heavy alcohol use
“AFib can also be a marker for an underlying chronic disease such as sleep apnea or high blood pressure,” Dr. Dandamudi points out. “Treating and correcting these underlying conditions can reduce the risk.”
How is AFib treated?
AFib can be treated with a variety of medications that help slow or regulate the heart rhythm. Other treatments include:
- Blood thinning medication to keep blood clots from forming
- Electrical cardioversion (an electric shock that resets the heartbeat to normal)
Making healthy lifestyle changes can go a long way toward reducing risk, according to Dr. Dandamudi. “We don’t fully understand all the risk factors for AFib,” he says, “but we do know that a healthy diet, exercise, and avoiding obesity make a difference.”
-- By Amy Sunshine