Heart Disease: Atrial Fibrillation

Apr 13, 2016

Heart Disease: Atrial Fibrillation

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According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, atrial fibrillation is characterized by rapid and disorganized atrial activity, with a frequency between 300 and 600 beats/minute. The ventricles, or lower chambers of the heart, react irregularly and may contract rapidly or slowly depending on the health of the conduction system. Clinical symptoms are varied, including palpitations, syncope, dizziness or embolic events.

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common type of irregular heartbeat, and the chance of losing the heart’s regular rhythm only increases with age. Those with an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, are 3 to 5 times more likely to have a stroke, so it is important to understand symptoms and learn ways to effectively manage side effects.

To understand how those with atrial fibrillation have a different heartbeat, one must first understand how a regular heart works. In a normal heart, the two upper chambers contract first, followed by the two lower chambers, or ventricles. This system of heartbeat contractions regulates the electrical impulses in the heart and body. Instead of the atria contracting prior to the ventricles, they all contract at the same time and compete for electrical impulses.

Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

Some people with atrial fibrillation may present no symptoms, or if they do have symptoms, they may not be severe. 

  • Shortness of breath during normal activities, or even rest
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling, dizzy, faint, or lightheaded
  • Heart palpitations (sudden pounding or fluttering)
  • Chest discomfort (pain, pressure, tightness)

What Causes Atrial Fibrillation

There is not one lone cause of atrial fibrillation, however, you are more likely to develop the condition if you have or have had: 

  • Previous heart surgery
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart valve disease
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Coronary heart disease or heart defects/failure
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Obesity
  • Sleep apnea
  • High uses of alcohol or caffeine

Diagnosing Atrial Fibrillation

To diagnose atrial fibrillation, a doctor will monitor irregular heartbeats, what kind of heartbeat is occurring, how long irregular heartbeats last, and estimate what may be causing the irregularity.

Electrocardiogram (EKG)

This is a test done that monitors the electrical activity of the heart. EKGs can also determine the cause of the symptoms and check the heart for other diseases such as high blood pressure, or high cholesterol.

Holter Monitor

This is a continuous tape recording of a patient’s EKG. This is used to monitor symptoms such as dizziness or blackouts.

Cardiac event recorder

This device is a battery powered device that allows a patient to tape-record the heart’s electrical activity. There are two types of cardiac event recorders:

  • Loop monitor: A device about the size of a pager that can be programmed to record five-minute increments of the heartbeat. If one feels faint, push the button after recovery
  • System event monitor: A device that could be handheld or worn on the wrist. Hit the record button when a heartbeat feels irregular.

Transtelephonic monitor

This is a small electronic device used to record a patient’s heart rhythm. Instead of recording continuously, the heartbeat is recorded when the patient pushes a button.

Many people live with AF without realizing that they have the disease. Since 70 percent of those with atrial fibrillation are 65 or older, this is a major issue among the aging.

Treatment for Atrial Fibrillation

There are several treatments for atrial fibrillation that can be implemented depending on the severity of one's condition. Common ways to treat this type of heart disease include:

  • Blood thinners - An irregular heartbeat means that blood doesn’t flow as well as it should, so in order to get that blood moving, a blood thinner like aspirin can help prevent clots and strokes.
  • Warfarin - This is a more powerful, prescription blood thinner. This prescription is also helpful for those with high blood pressure or diabetes.
  • Slowing down the heart - There are certain medications that can slow down a racing heart. When the heartbeat is less than 100 beats per minute, a patient will feel significantly stronger.
  • Electrical cardioversion - This is a medical procedure that essentially resets the heart’s rhythm.
  • Ablation - If drugs and electrical treatment are ineffective, a doctor may sedate a patient and then insert a thin, flexible tube into a large blood vessel. Once this vessel is guided into the irregular spot of the heart, the tissue will be destroyed.
  • Pacemaker - This small device is battery operated and located under the skin near the collarbone. The wires attach to the heart to keep it going at a healthy pace.

Heart Surgery

During open-heart surgery, a surgeon will make precise cuts to scar the heart’s upper chambers to interrupt the electrical rhythms. Successful surgeries allow a patient to live normally from that point onward.

The most important thing to remember if yourself or a loved one is living with atrial fibrillation is to make lifestyle changes and seek help when needed.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most common heart disease in senior citizens?

The most common heart disease in senior citizens is coronary artery disease. It’s caused by the narrowing and/or blockage of blood vessels that supply the heart. For more information on coronary artery disease or other heart diseases, check out World Heart Federation’s list of heart diseases.

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My father was recently diagnosed with heart disease. What are some not-for-profit organizations that I can join to help raise awareness of heart disease?

The most popular not-for-profit that focuses on heart disease is the American Heart Association. Their mission is to build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. However, other not-for-profits include: The Heart Foundation, Children’s Heart Foundation, and One Million Hearts, a byproduct of the Department of Health and Human Services.

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