Atrial Fibrillation: Know the Warning Signs
Feb 23, 2022 Jeremy Deutchman
We rely on our hearts to keep perfect time—to measure out the rhythm of our daily lives in a dependable way. But what happens when that rhythm falters?
For millions of Americans, it's a sign of atrial fibrillation (AFib), which is the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm (known as arrhythmia). AFib can lead to a host of potential health problems, including stroke and heart failure. Monitoring—and even preventing—this treatable condition can improve health outcomes and save lives.
Educating people about the dangers and warning signs of AFib is a critical first step, and it is a significant focus of the work of Dr. Sumeet Chugh, medical director of the Heart Rhythm Center at the Smidt Heart Institute, Pauline and Harold Price Chair in Cardiac Electrophysiology Research at Cedars-Sinai, and a global expert in cardiac electrophysiology. He says people with AFib would be wise to listen to the messages their bodies are sending them—and to take comfort in knowing just how successful timely intervention efforts can be.
Here, he shares a few tips to help patients navigate an AFib diagnosis.
"The first thing to know is you shouldn't panic if you get this diagnosis. You're in good company."
Tip #1: Don't panic.
"The first thing to know is you shouldn't panic if you get this diagnosis. You're in good company," Dr. Chugh says. Over a decade ago, as head of a World Health Organization panel studying arrhythmias, he helped develop a process to estimate the number of people experiencing AFib globally. The figure he and his colleagues arrived at was about .5%. Ten years later, he says, with populations around the world aging, that number has doubled. "The bottom line is a lot of us are going to get it."
Tip #2: A healthy lifestyle can reverse it
The good news is that getting AFib does not always mean you'll have it forever. Preventing and potentially reversing it is often a matter of taking proactive steps to maintain a healthy lifestyle. "High blood pressure and obesity can both be contributing factors to AFib," Dr. Chugh says. "Alcohol consumption is another one. As the amount [of alcohol you drink] goes up, your chances of getting AFib increase. It's almost a linear relationship."
Studies have shown that prioritizing healthy choices has clear benefits. "In clinical trials, as participants lost weight, the amount of AFib they were experiencing diminished, and in some cases, it went away completely," Dr. Chugh says. "It was like a revelation to the field. We had been focusing on treating AFib with medications and procedures, not by altering lifestyle."
Tip #3: Prevention and treatment work hand in hand.
Medications or procedures can be required to address AFib appropriately. Drugs that help control your heart rate (known as beta blockers) can be highly effective, as can drugs that thin the blood (known as anticoagulants) and drugs that treat abnormal heart rhythms (known as antiarrhythmics).
At the same time, patients should be cautious about taking supplements. Recent research from the Smidt Heart Institute suggests that high doses of fish oil may actually increase the risk of AFib. Common procedures for treating the condition include catheter ablation and cardioversion, which use a variety of methods to restore the heart's normal rhythm.
In many cases, patients benefit from a combination of prevention and treatment. "If you eat well and exercise, you can avoid obesity. If you avoid obesity, you can avoid sleep apnea—another risk factor for AFib. Targeted treatments can work hand in hand with these lifestyle modifications to help reduce risk even further. It all becomes a tapestry, a series of individual but interconnected threads that form a picture and tell a larger story," Dr. Chugh says.
No matter the approach to treating or preventing AFib, Dr. Chugh says that for most patients, the underlying message remains the same. "The majority of people who have the condition can continue to live normal, active lives," he says. "The most important thing is getting the best care and the right intervention for you."