June 01, 2012

Atrial fibrillation

Prevent stroke, stop symptoms

Atrial fibrillation

You expected to sail through your yearly check-up. What you didn't expect was a diagnosis of a heart rhythm problem called atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation occurs in about 1 percent of adults in their 60s. The incidence rate rises with age after that, with about 10 to 12 percent of people in their 80s having atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation may or may not cause symptoms. Either way, it can lead to development of blood clots in the heart that can break off and travel to the brain, where they can disrupt blood supply and cause a stroke.

About 15 percent of strokes are attributed to atrial fibrillation — and that number may be higher as undetected atrial fibrillation may be responsible for some of the roughly 25 percent of strokes that have no identifiable cause.

Whether you feel symptoms or not, it's important to follow through with recommended treatments. These may include medications or surgery designed to help control or reset your heart rhythm, in addition to anti-clotting medications to prevent stroke.

Mixed signals

A heartbeat starts with an electric signal from the heart's natural pacemaker, the sinoatrial (SA) node. This signal passes through the heart's upper chambers (atria). The signal causes the atria to contract, squeezing blood into the heart's two lower chambers (ventricles). A split second later, the signal passes through an electrical checkpoint — the atrioventricular (AV) node — that connects the atria and ventricles. This causes the ventricles to contract, pumping blood to the body.

Atrial fibrillation...