Atrial fibrillation, also known as AF or AFib, is a heart condition. With AFib, the two upper chambers of the heart, called the atria, are out of rhythm. This irregular beating causes blood flow problems throughout the body. This reduced blood flow, and the resulting lowered oxygen levels, leads to symptoms like:

  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • heart palpitations
  • dizziness
  • chest pain and discomfort

Possible Complications

People with AFib are at increased risk of serious complications, including stroke and heart failure. Strokes are caused by blockages in blood vessels that supply the brain. When a blood clot blocks such a blood vessel, that part of the brain becomes deprived of oxygen and may be damaged as a result. Heart failure occurs when the heart is so weakened that it can no longer pump enough blood throughout the body to keep it alive.

Risk for Stroke

According to the American Heart Association, people who have atrial fibrillation are at about five times the normal risk of developing stroke. There are two reasons for this:

  • The out-of-sync rhythm of the heart’s upper chambers can cause blood to collect. When this happens, clots are more likely to form from that pooled blood.
  • The generally poor heart rhythm is inefficient, and pumps blood more slowly throughout the body. When blood is not moving normally, it has a greater chance to clot inside the blood vessels.

In both cases, once clots have formed, they can break loose and travel through the circulatory system to the brain. If a clot lodges in one of the brain’s blood vessels, blood (and oxygen) is cut off and a stroke occurs.

While stroke is a very serious and sometimes fatal condition, you are not powerless. There are many ways you can be proactive and reduce your risk of stroke. 

Reducing Your Risk

While it’s true that AFib ups your stroke risk, you are at an even higher risk when one or more other risk factors are also present. Choices you make in your daily life can affect your risk, for better or for worse, as can other health conditions and the way you manage them.

Lifestyle changes that help reduce the risk of stroke include:

  • quitting smoking: Smoking cigarettes reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood, contributing to the formation of clots. It can also increase the amount of plaque built up in the arteries.
  • reducing caffeine consumption: Even small amounts of caffeine, a stimulant, can raise your blood pressure and make your heart work harder.
  • avoiding other stimulants:  These include the stimulants present in over-the-counter cold medicines.
  • lowering cholesterol: Diets high in fat and cholesterol contribute to clogged arteries, making blood clots more likely to form.

Other, related health conditions can put you at an even greater risk for stroke if they are not managed carefully. Some of these are:

  • high blood pressure: If left untreated, high blood pressure causes damage to the walls of veins and arteries. This can cause the walls to grow thicker, narrowing the blood vessels and increasing the risk of clots and stroke.
  • diabetes: People with uncontrolled diabetes are more likely to have conditions like high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, and high cholesterol. All of these conditions are risk factors for stroke.
  • obesity: Obesity is a strain on the whole circulatory system, and also increases your risk of other heart complications. Both situations further increase the risk of stroke.

If you have any of these conditions along with your atrial fibrillation, talk to your doctor about how you can manage them. Take your medications and insulin as directed. Be proactive about managing your weight through diet, safe exercise, and other lifestyle changes.