Updated: Feb 18
Atrial fibrillation or AF is the most common abnormal heart rhythm we see as cardiologists. In fact, it’s estimated to affect 3 to 6 million Americans, and 12% of Americans between the ages of 75 and 84. So what is AF?
It turns out the heart is not just a muscle: it is also an electrical generator. In fact, without electric activity the heart wouldn’t beat at all (which is why we talk about a “flat line” on a heart monitor being a bad thing!). Normally an electrical signal spreads in an organized way from the top chambers (also called “atria”) to the bottom chambers (the pumping chambers, called “ventricles”). In response, the heart contracts in a regular, consistent way.
In AF, that organized activity becomes disorganized because the electric single in the atria become chaotic. Another word for this is “fibrillation”. This can make the heart beat very fast and irregularly. Patients may feel their heart fluttering along with such symptoms as shortness of breath, weakness or dizziness. But some people don’t feel anything at all!
AF is caused by many things. In addition to aging, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, and undiagnosed sleep apnea can be the culprit, among others. Your doctor can diagnose AF on an electrocardiogram or EKG (that tracing of your heart rhythm when they hook you up to all those wires). If your doctor diagnoses AF, he or she will likely send you to see a cardiologist. There are many treatment options nowadays and your cardiologist will discuss them with you.
But the best treatment is prevention. Maintenance of a healthy lifestyle and regular follow up with your doctor for the treatment of risk factors will go a long way to preventing AF.