Atrial fibrillation, also known as "AFib," is a heart rhythm disorder in which the "atria" - the two upper chambers of the heart -- "fibrillate" or beat rapidly and irregularly. Watch this WomenHeart video to learn more about AFib.
Is it AFib? AFib Symptoms
Up to a third of women with AFib don't feel symptoms. Other women feel tired and experience heart palpitations, which may feel like a fluttering or flopping sensation in thchest, or the feeling that the heart is beating too quickly. A woman experiencing AFib may also feel dizzy or short of breath. Some feel chest pain; some women faint. Your doctor can determine if your symptoms are caused by AFib.
Who Gets AFib?
AFib is the most common type of heart rhythm disorder. About 2.6 million Americans have AFib, and most women are diagnosed in their 60s and 70s. Some younger women have AFib, too. As Baby Boomers are aging, more and more people are being diagnosed with AFib.
AFib Risk Factors
Along with age and an existing heart condition, obesity is a major risk factor for AFib. Women who drink alcohol heavily are also at risk for AFib.
Other risk factors include diabetes, overactive thyroid, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, lung disease, smoking, caffeine intake, and stress.
The Connection Between AFib and Stroke
AFib is a serious condition because it can lead to a fatal or life-impairing stroke. In fact, a woman with AFib is 5 times more likely to have a stroke than a woman without AFib. Stroke is the 3rd leading cause of death in women.
Managing your AFib can decrease your risk of having a stroke. Because of the risk, it's important to recognize the symptoms of stroke so you can get immediate medical assistance.
Know the Symptoms of Stroke
A stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery and prevents blood from reaching the brain.
Know the symptoms of stroke. It might be a stroke if you experience sudden numbness or weakness in a leg, arm, or in the face; sudden confusion, sudden difficulty speaking or understanding speech, trouble walking or with balance, or a sudden, severe headache.
In addition, women having a stroke may experience sudden pain in their face, arms, and legs; nausea or vomiting; shortness of breath; and heart palpitations. Women may also feel agitated or have behavior changes.
If you have any of these symptoms, call 9-1-1 or get emergency medical help right away.
Stroke Risk Factors
In addition to AFib, risk factors for having a stroke include family history of stroke, being overweight, having high blood pressure, having high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, lack of exercise, and for women, having migraine headaches with aura, using oral contraceptives, or using Hormone Replacement Therapy.
According to the National Stroke Association, 60% to 80% of strokes in people with AFib can be prevented. If you have AFib, your doctor may prescribe anticoagulant (blood thinning) medication. Medication can help prevent clots from forming that could lead to a stroke, so it's critical to take medication as prescribed.
In addition, keeping your heart healthy will help prevent stroke. For many women, this means maintaining a healthy weight with a low-fat diet, being physically active, and managing stress. It's also important to manage other health conditions you may have, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
Living with AFib
It's possible to have a full and enjoyable life when you have AFib but you may have to give more thought to your routines and make an extra effort to stay healthy.
Talking with Your Doctor About AFib
When you talk to your doctor about managing your AFib, you'll have questions and your doctor will also have questions for you. Being prepared for doctor's appointments can help you get appropriate care.
Before your appointment, make a list of all your medications and doctors.
Bring your insurance plan information and a list of questions for your doctor. You may want to know if there are any foods or activities you should avoid, how to track your AFib symptoms, and which symptoms require immediate medical attention.
Be prepared to answer your doctor's questions. He or she may ask you when you first started experiencing symptoms, if they have been ongoing or occasional, and if anything seems to make them worse or better. Be sure to tell the doctor about all your symptoms and concerns, including any feelings of anxiety or depression you may have.
Treatments for AFib
AFib varies in how long the condition lasts, and how severe it is. Some women have AFib for a short period and recover. Other women may have AFib permanently.
Depending on your health conditions, your doctor may prescribe lifestyle changes, cardioversion (shocking the heart back into rhythm), medications, surgical treatments, or implanted devices, such as a pacemaker, which may help your heart keep a normal rhythm.
AFib and Diet
Eating a low-fat, heart-healthy diet is more important than ever when you have AFib. Women with AFib who eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day tend to have better health outcomes. Your doctor may advise you to abstain from alcohol or drink in moderation. Some women find their AFib symptoms become worse when they drink beverages containing caffeine.
If you take a prescription blood thinner, ask your doctor how much leafy green vegetables you may safely eat. Green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale are high in vitamin K, which can interfere with blood thinning medication.
Staying Active with AFib
While strenuous exercise can make AFib symptoms worse, most women with AFib can be active and exercise in moderation. Regular physical activity can help improve your symptoms and reduce your risk of stroke. AFib-friendly activities can include brisk walking, biking, yoga, and strength training. Ask your doctor for a fitness prescription.
AFib and Your Emotional Health
It's normal to feel anxiety when you are diagnosed with a serious heart condition, but the more you know about AFib and how to manage your symptoms, the better you may feel. Ask your doctor about tracking your symptoms and triggers, and find out which symptoms merit a call and which need immediate medical attention.
Your emotional health matters. Dedicate some time each day to relaxing and doing activities you enjoy to reduce stress. You might want to try soothing activities, such as meditation, yoga, or spending time with loved ones. Support groups are helpful for many women.
If fears about a triggering an AFib episode are causing you to skip exercise or activities you used to enjoy, talk to your doctor. There are treatments that can help you cope with stress and anxiety.
When You Love Someone with AFib
Are you a family member or a caregiver of a woman living with AFib? If so, you may be wondering how you can best help her manage her condition to have the best possible quality of life.
Research shows that women with AFib who have a caregiver or family member accompany them to doctor appointments have better health outcomes than women who go to doctor appointments alone. So, one of the most important ways you can support a loved one is to go to her doctor appointments with her, and obtain her consent to ask questions you may have.
It's also important for caregivers of AFib patients to learn how to recognize the symptoms of stroke.
You can also help a loved one with AFib by being supportive, listening to her concerns, and enjoying fun activities together.
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