The irregular heart rhythm named Atrial Fibrillation affects close to three million people in the United States.
Although this heart rhythm can lead to strokes, the symptoms often go unnoticed, and many patients just ignore some of them, a bad practice overall.
High blood pressure (also called Hypertension) is a major risk factor for atrial fibrillation. Symptoms may include:
The big “However” is that it’s quite possible to have Atrial Fibrillation and not notice any symptoms.
According to David Wilber, MD at Loyola University-Chicago:
“For every episode of atrial fibrillation that is recognized, there is probably one episode that is not recognized.”
Atrial Fibrillation symptoms, like fatigue or feeling lightheaded, can be subtle. People who have had intermittent episodes of atrial fibrillation for a while may not even be aware that they’re having an episode.
Knowing the atrial fibrillation risk factors can help you recognize the symptoms. Even in the absence of symptoms, you can ask your doctor to evaluate your heartbeat if you have these risks.
1. Atrial Fibrillation Risk Increases With Age
“Atrial fibrillation is uncommon before age 50,” says Dr. Wilber. “By age 80, about 10 to 20 percent of the population will have episodes of atrial fibrillation.”
➡ As the baby boomer generation ages, there are about 160,000 new cases of atrial fibrillation every year.
➡ Older men are more likely to have atrial fibrillation than older women.
➡ Even though atrial fibrillation increases with age, half the people who have it are younger than 75.
“About 20 percent of atrial fibrillation can be caused by structural heart disease,” Dr. Wilber says.
➡ Structural heart disease most often refers to cardiac defects which are congenital in nature (present at birth) but may also include abnormalities of the valves and vessels of the heart wall that develop with wear and tear on the heart, or through other disease processes. ➡
➡ Coronary Artery Disease can also be a risk factor.
➡ Diseases that affect your heart’s valves, such as Mitral Valve Disease can also be risk factors.
Heart defects that you’re born with (congenital) can increase your atrial fibrillation risk.
3. High Blood Pressure
As mentioned earlier, hypertension is also a major risk factor — and it’s “one of the most common risk factors because hypertension is such a common problem,” Wilber explains.
➡ Approximately one in three adults in the United States have high blood pressure.
➡ Hypertension increases the workload of your heart, which may trigger atrial fibrillation symptoms.
➡ High blood pressure increases your risk for stroke, the primary complication of atrial fibrillation.
Alcohol is a rare cause of atrial fibrillation, but like caffeine, it can irritate the heart and trigger symptoms of atrial fibrillation.
➡ Heavy alcohol abuse or binge drinking has been shown to cause atrial fibrillation.
➡ “Holiday Heart” is so named because it is a time when a person can experience an episode of atrial fibrillation after drinking their way through a holiday weekend, such as The 4th Of July.
A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that heavy drinkers have an almost 40 % higher risk of atrial fibrillation than nondrinkers.
5. Your Family History Could Put You at Risk
While we’re still learning about genes that may cause atrial fibrillation, recent studies suggest that about 30% of people with atrial fibrillation have a family history of the condition.
➡ Some gene changes that are associated with inherited atrial fibrillation have been identified.
➡ Changes, or mutations in these genes, may disrupt the flow of chemicals that help regulate heart rhythm.
6. An Abnormal Thyroid Gland Could Be a Risk Factor
➡ Having an overactive thyroid gland, known as hyperthyroidism, can be a cause of atrial fibrillation. We suspect that it may account for about 1-2% of atrial fibrillation.
➡ Both atrial fibrillation and hyperthyroidism can cause a rapid heartbeat and palpitations.
➡ Treatment of hyperthyroidism may also control atrial fibrillation.
7. Sleep Apnea Is Linked to Atrial Fibrillation
While there does seem to be an association between these two conditions, it’s not yet clear how much treating one condition affects the other.”
➡ Sleep apnea is a common condition in which your airway collapses during sleep, causing an interruption in breathing.
➡ Some studies now show that sleep apnea can be a trigger for atrial fibrillation symptoms, and a clinical trial is underway to determine the incidence of new onset of fibrillation in patients with sleep apnea.
➡ According to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the chance of having an irregular heartbeat is 18 times greater after a recent episode of sleep apnea.
And, naturally, more research is being done to see if treating sleep apnea can help people with atrial fibrillation.
➡ A study published in March 2015 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) in people with sleep apnea was associated with a significant reduction in recurrence of atrial fibrillation.
But there’s a mystery surrounding Atrial Fibrillation:
According to Dr. Wilber: ”In two out of three cases of atrial fibrillation, no identifiable risk factor is found.”
While the public is still learning about managing this condition, Doctors are too. They’re learning about the causes of atrial fibrillation.
➡ This irregular heartbeat already affects millions of people and becomes more of a risk as you get older.
➡ Your best protection against Atrial Fibrillation is to know your risk factors and let your doctor know if you have any symptoms — particularly if you’re over age 50.
In the meantime, there are currently several effective treatments available to control it and keep your heart healthy for many years.