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What You Should Know About Atrial Fibrillation (AFib)

An Interview with Dr. Robert Herman
Clinical Cardiologist
The Villages Health Specialty Center

September is National Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) Awareness Month, a good time to become more aware of this complex condition that frequently affects older adults. It is estimated about 9%* of seniors over the age of 65 experience episodes of AFib.

Although not life-threatening on its own, AFib can lead to strokes and other serious cardiovascular problems when left untreated. For this reason, it’s important to understand your risks and treatment options if you suffer from this common condition.

What is AFib?

Simply put, Atrial Fibrillation, or AFib, is an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). Unlike many heart-related problems, AFib is not muscle-related. It’s caused, instead, by the body’s electrical system, which fails to keep the upper chambers of the heart beating regularly. As a result, the heart is unable to effectively move blood into the body which, in turn, leads to a higher risk of blood clots.

Common symptoms of AFib

Typical symptoms of AFib may include fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and swelling of the feet. Often, patients notice a fluttering, rumbling or even booming of the heart. Other patients, however, may experience no noticeable symptoms whatsoever.

What to do if you suspect AFib

Fortunately, AFib is a manageable condition that’s unrelated to coronary disease. It typically responds well to treatment, which may include anticoagulation drugs, beta blockers or other drugs intended to control the heart rate.

For those who don’t respond well to drug therapy, alternative treatment options include radiofrequency ablation (RFA), the insertion of a WATCHMAN(TM) or similar implant device, and synchronized electrical cardioversion—the delivery of a therapeutic dose of electrical stimulation to restore the heart’s normal beat.

Which option is most effective depends upon the patient and other medical factors. This is why it’s important to receive a proper diagnosis and the appropriate care of a specialist.

What happens if AFib is left untreated?

Although there is no cure for AFib, with proper treatment, most patients return to a normal lifestyle. If left untreated, however, AFib can lead to severe complications such as shortness of breath, heart failure, and other problems requiring hospitalization. Those with AFib are also at a five times greater risk of stroke.

If you experience rapid heartbeat, irregular pulsations in the neck, or shortness of breath—particularly in conjunction with fatigue, weakness and swelling of the feet—discuss these symptoms with your physician. If AFib is determined to be the cause, the problem can be easily managed with appropriate treatment.

*January CT, Wann LS, Alpert JS, Calkins H, Cigarroa JE, Cleveland JC Jr, et al. 2014 AHA/ACC/HRS guideline for the management of patients with atrial fibrillation. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2014;64(21):2246–80.

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