Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a heart rhythm disorder that results in an irregular and rapid heart rate. It affects some 2.2 million people in the United States. In addition to increasing your potential to develop other heart complications, like heart failure, AFib may increase your risk of stroke. Here’s more about the connection between AFib and stroke, as well as some things you can do to lower your stroke risk.

AFib and stroke

About 15 percent of people who have strokes also have AFib. Of those with AFib, more than 70 percent die of stroke. AFib is often asymptomatic. Up to a third of people with the condition don’t even know they have it. The first step in protecting yourself against stroke is making the connection between the two conditions.

So, how exactly does AFib lead to stroke? When the two upper chambers of your heart beat irregularly, it may cause blood to pool or collect, developing clots. Clots may dislodge and travel to different organs in your body, including your brain. When a clot blocks blood flow to your brain, it causes a stroke.

Other risk factors

Some people are a higher risk of developing stroke with AFib. For example, people who are older are at a higher risk.

You may also be at high risk if you have:

  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • history of previous stroke
  • history of heart failure

The good news is that up to 80 percent of strokes in people who also have AFib can be prevented by taking medications and making simple lifestyle changes.

Ways to reduce your stroke risk

Treat your AFib

Your doctor may prescribe blood thinners to reduce your risk of stroke if you have AFib. Specific medications you may encounter include warfarin (Coumadin), dabigatran (Pradaxa), rivaroxaban (Xarelto), and apixaban (Eliquis). You may also try high-dose aspirin. If you have had side effects with certain blood-thinning medications in the past, speak with your doctor to see if trying another type is an option for you.

Remember: AFib is often asymptomatic. If you’re experiencing any heart palpitations, shortness of breath, or other symptoms, see your doctor for a checkup.

Exercise

Working out lowers your stroke risk. Moving your body more can also help you lose weight and lower your blood pressure. Exercising five times per week at a moderate intensity for around 30 minutes is a good place to start. Ask your doctor how much activity is right for you.

How can you move more? Try walking outside when the weather is nice. You can also fit more steps into your day by taking the stairs or parking farther away from the store while you run errands. Whatever you do, aim to exercise at a level where you can comfortably speak, but you’re also breathing hard.

Eat heart-healthy foods

Choosing healthy foods can help lower your stroke risk by allowing you to achieve a healthy weight, as well as manage diabetes if you have it. Eating well also makes you feel better and more energized. You’ll likely feel more sustained energy throughout the day — helping with exercise — if you keep your blood sugar levels stable.

Choose plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables over processed foods. You may also want to work fish into your diet two or three times each week. Whole grains and low-fat dairy are other good food choices. Drink lots of water too.

Maintain a healthy weight

Losing just 10 pounds may decrease your stroke risk. Not only that, being overweight or obese may lead to other complications, like high blood pressure and diabetes. So shedding some pounds helps in a number of different ways. A body mass index (BMI) of 25 or less puts you in the “normal” weight range, but your doctor is a good resource for finding the right weight for you.

Eating between 1,500 and 2,000 calories each day is a good place to start. You can also increase your exercise to burn more calories. If you feel overwhelmed at the idea of dieting, ask your doctor to refer you to a dietician.

Stop smoking and limit alcohol

Smoking is a dangerous habit. It can lead to health issues ranging from higher blood pressure to thickened blood to plaque buildup in your arteries. You can dramatically lower your stroke risk by stopping smoking today.

Don’t know how to stop? You don’t have to do it alone. Ask your doctor for some resources that may help you quit. There are patches, pills, and other quitting aids on the market, as well as counseling, support groups, and more. You can also call 800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669) for free support.

While you’re at it, try drinking alcohol only in moderation. More studies need to be done in this area, but enjoying just one drink each day may lower your stroke risk. Red wine is a good choice because it contains a resveratrol, a phenol that may protect your heart.

Monitor your blood pressure

If you do have high blood pressure, keeping your numbers in check will also lower your stroke risk. It’s actually one of the most important areas in which you should concentrate your efforts. What’s ideal? Keeping your blood pressure less than 120/80 or at the very least below 140/90. Your doctor can give you a better idea of your personal goal.

Losing weight and exercising more may lower your blood pressure. You may also want to reduce your salt intake to 1,500 milligrams or less and stay away from foods like hamburgers and full-fat dairy products. If you smoke, stop.

Some people may need to take blood pressure medications on top of making lifestyle changes.

When to see your doctor

If you’re concerned about your risk of having a stroke, contact your doctor. You may want to discuss managing any existing health conditions that put you at higher risk. Your doctor can also answer your questions about taking medications or give you resources to make lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking and losing weight.

Call 911 immediately if you experience symptoms of a stroke. These include:

  • Difficulty speaking or understanding: You may feel confused, slur words, or have trouble understanding what people are saying to you.
  • Numbness or paralysis: You may experience this symptom with your face, arms, or legs — usually on just one side of your body. You may want to try to raise both arms above your head to see if one side starts to fall. If so, you may be having a stroke.
  • Vision issues with one or both eyes: You may experience a sudden blurring or blackening of your vision, or you may even see double.
  • Headache: You may have a sudden headache that is severe. You may also vomit or feel dizzy.
  • Coordination issues: Along with dizziness, you may stumble around or have trouble balancing.

The takeaway: Caregivers — think FAST!

The chances you may have a stroke are higher if you have AFib, but there is much you can do to lower your risk. Making the connection between AFib and stroke is the first step in the process. You should also tell your significant other, family members, or friends to think “FAST” if they think you may be having a stroke:

  • Face: Does one side of your mouth droop while you smile?
  • Arms: Can you lift both arms, or does one arm fall down?
  • Speech: Are you able to speak without slurring?
  • Time: Call 911 if they observe any of these symptoms.

Each and every minute counts when it comes to treating a stroke. The longer you wait to get treated, the more brain damage you may experience.