Heart Disease

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Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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Keeping the Beat: What You Should Know about Atrial Fibrillation

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It’s easy to take the strong and steady beat of our heart for granted, counting on it to speed up when we need a surge of power and to slow down when it’s time to rest. Our hearts are usually such marvelously quiet and dependable organs that the majority of Americans have never heard of atrial fibrillation, despite the fact that over of 2 million of us are afflicted. The Heart Rhythm Society intends to change that by raising awareness of this serious heart rhythm disturbance through its “A-Fib Feels Like” campaign.

Atrial fibrillation strikes people of all ages, although it’s more common in folks over 70. An irregular rhythm that starts in the atria, or top chambers of the heart, atrial fibrillation usually causes the heart to beat rapidly and erratically. Over time, it may cause blood clots to form which have the potential to travel from the heart to the brain, causing a stroke. A stroke caused by atrial fibrillation can be devastating and life changing. Although most people with atrial fibrillation will feel the irregular heartbeats, or palpitations, many will not realize the importance of getting the problem checked out and treated.

There are a number of potential causes of atrial fibrillation. Sometimes it is a purely electrical problem, due to “faulty wiring” in the heart. More often it is connected to other health conditions, including

  • High blood pressure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Heart valve disease
  • Thyroid disease
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Sleep apnea
  • Excessive alcohol
  • Serious illness or infection

Treatment generally involves slowing the heart rate down, preventing blood clots and strokes by using “blood thinner” medications, and (in some, but not all, cases) restoring normal rhythm through an electrical cardioversion, in which the heart is shocked to reset the rhythm while the patient is under anesthesia.

Of course not all palpitations are caused by atrial fibrillation, and some heart rhythm disturbances are more annoying than harmful. However, a change in the heart rhythm should never be ignored. Making a diagnosis is usually fairly simple, and often a quick electrocardiogram (a tracing of the heart’s electrical activity) will diagnose the problem. If the symptoms occur sporadically, your doctor may order a heart monitor which can be worn for up to 30 days.

By listening to your body and seeking help when you have concerns, you and your doctor can work together to choose the best treatment options to keep you safe, strong, and active.

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About the Author


MD, FACC

Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.

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