Taking Control of Atrial Fibrillation: What You Need to Know

What is atrial fibrillation, the heart condition US President Joe Biden lives with?

Did you know that US President Joe Biden lives with a heart condition called atrial fibrillation? This condition increases the risk of stroke by five-fold and doubles the risk of heart attack and dementia. Surprisingly, many people around the world are unaware that they have atrial fibrillation, with over 37.5 million individuals affected.

While most people with this condition have few symptoms and can continue with their daily lives, it is crucial to identify and treat atrial fibrillation to prevent serious health consequences. Our recent study, published in the journal Heart, highlights the importance of managing blood pressure in reducing the risks associated with this condition.

Understanding Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm disorder, characterized by irregular heartbeats that can be either fast or slow. While it is more common as we age, some individuals develop it in their 30s and 40s. This abnormal heart rhythm originates in the top chambers of the heart, affecting its ability to pump blood effectively. Consequently, blood can pool and form clots, leading to severe complications.

Recognizing the Symptoms

Some people experience noticeable symptoms such as heart palpitations, breathlessness, or discomfort when they go into atrial fibrillation. These symptoms can interrupt their normal activities. However, others may have no symptoms at all, making it challenging to detect atrial fibrillation. The reasons behind the differences in symptom experience are still not well understood.

If you experience symptoms, it is essential to discuss them with your GP. They will inquire about triggers, your overall health, and other risk factors before conducting an electrocardiogram (ECG). This non-invasive test measures the heart’s electrical activity by attaching 12 leads to your chest. If your GP suspects a heart rhythm problem, including atrial fibrillation, they will refer you to a cardiologist or hospital clinic for further evaluation and treatment.

Although some claim that consumer wearables like smartwatches can detect atrial fibrillation, their accuracy remains uncertain.

Health worker with ECG trace in hand, man lying on hospital bed in background

Living with Atrial Fibrillation

Once diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, it is crucial to assess your risk of serious complications, such as an increased risk of stroke. Managing risk factors that worsen atrial fibrillation, like cutting down on alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight, and engaging in regular exercise, is recommended. For those at higher risk of stroke, blood-thinning medications may be prescribed. In some cases, medications to control heart rhythm or a procedure called “ablation” may be necessary. Ablation involves identifying and treating the electrical origin of the condition by passing wires into the heart.

The Link Between Atrial Fibrillation and High Blood Pressure

More than three in five people with atrial fibrillation also have high blood pressure, a significant cause of stroke and heart attacks. Therefore, managing blood pressure is crucial. Our recent research analyzed data from electronic medical records of approximately 34,000 Australian GP patients with both atrial fibrillation and hypertension. Shockingly, we discovered that one-third of them had poorly controlled blood pressure, putting this already high-risk group at an even greater risk of stroke.

When blood pressure is poorly controlled, it usually means that medications are not effectively lowering it. Reasons for this could include doctors not adjusting the medication regimen as needed, patients being unable to afford their medications, or forgetting to take them. Interestingly, we also found that individuals who regularly visited the same GP had better blood pressure control and a lower risk of stroke.

Female doctor checking blood pressure of older male

The Importance of Early Intervention

It is of paramount importance that individuals at the highest risk of stroke, particularly those with both atrial fibrillation and high blood pressure, receive appropriate treatment to minimize their risk. Strokes, heart attacks, and dementia are still leading causes of death and illness worldwide. By taking proactive steps to prevent these complications, such as managing blood pressure and seeking timely medical care, we can significantly improve our health and well-being.

Remember, prevention is always better than treatment. Reach out to your healthcare provider if you suspect you may have atrial fibrillation or if you’re concerned about your heart health.