Atrial Fib­ril­la­tion

Atrial fib­ril­la­tion—what it is and what to do

Reader's Digest International - - Contents - BY SA­MAN­THA RIDEOUT

THE MOST COM­MON kind of heart-rhythm ab­nor­mal­ity, atrial fib­ril­la­tion (AFib) af­fects about six per­cent of peo­ple over 65. It hap­pens when the atria—the heart’s two up­per cham­bers—con­tract quickly and chaot­i­cally. Whereas a nor­mal rest­ing heart rate ranges between 60 and 100 beats per minute, a rest­ing heart af­fected by AFib may at times beat between 100 and 175 times within the same time pe­riod.

As scary as this sounds, many peo­ple with AFib feel fine. They may not know about their con­di­tion un­til a doc­tor no­tices an un­usual heart­beat dur­ing a checkup. How­ever, if there are clear symp­toms, they could in­clude chest pain or thump­ing, short­ness of breath, light-head­ed­ness or anx­i­ety. (Chest pain or pres­sure could also in­di­cate a heart at­tack, so if you ex­pe­ri­ence ei­ther of those, you should play it safe and head to a hos­pi­tal.)

Dif­fer­ent things can con­trib­ute to the de­vel­op­ment of AFib, in­clud­ing thy­roid prob­lems, high blood pres­sure, sleep ap­nea, binge drink­ing or heart dis­ease—any­thing that could

stretch or scar the atrial walls. It is more com­mon among se­niors and peo­ple with a fam­ily his­tory of the con­di­tion. Once you’ve been di­ag­nosed, your doc­tor will likely rec­om­mend blood thin­ners to help pre­vent strokes and blood clots.

For many pa­tients, AFib pro­gresses from oc­ca­sional episodes to longer, more fre­quent ones, “like a car that needs to go to the garage for the same prob­lem in­creas­ingly of­ten,” says Dr. Dan Atar, a co-au­thor of the Euro­pean So­ci­ety of Car­di­ol­ogy’s AFib treat­ment guide­lines. For as long as it per­sists, you’ll likely need rate-con­trol drugs, which slow the heart’s rac­ing; you can also take an­tiar­rhyth­mic med­i­ca­tions, which con­trol ab­nor­mal heart rhythms, pre­vent­ing new episodes.

Your doc­tor may be able to re­set your heart from an AFib episode us­ing drugs or a slight elec­tric shock. Your best shot at putting an end to re­cur­ring episodes is catheter ab­la­tion, which in­volves send­ing a catheter into the heart to burn the tis­sues that are fir­ing off ir­reg­u­lar im­pulses. Ab­la­tion works about 70 to 75 per­cent of the time and stands a de­cent chance of solv­ing the prob­lem per­ma­nently.

AFib causes nearly 35% of all strokes in peo­ple over 60.

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