Atrial Fibrillation: A Growing Concern
Atrial fibrillation (AFib or AF) is sometimes called the quivering heart. It is the most common type of irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia. Fibrillation refers to the heart contracting very fast and irregularly.
To understand AF, it helps to think of the heart as the body’s electrical system. Each time our heart beats, an electrical signal is sent from the top of the heart to the bottom, causing it to contract and pump blood to the lungs and the rest of the body.
With AF, the electrical signals don’t follow the normal path; they may begin in another part of the heart. When the signals travel in a disorganized way, blood pools in the atria (the heart’s two upper chambers) and doesn’t get pumped effectively into the ventricles (the heart’s two lower chambers). Blood flow from the heart may alternate between rapid, small amounts to occasional, larger bursts, which can increase the risk of stroke and heart-related complications.
Some people with AF do not have any symptoms while others may feel like their heart is quivering, flip-flopping or racing. Other symptoms may include weakness, fatigue, lightheadedness, dizziness and confusion. Healthcare providers diagnose AF by performing an electrocardiogram (EKG). AF episodes can be brief, with symptoms that come and go, or can be more frequent and require treatment.
AF and Alcohol
Studies have shown that light drinking, such as an occasional glass of wine, can reduce the chance of developing heart disease or having a stroke. However, studies have linked moderate (1-3 drinks a day), occasional binge (5 drinks in a row), and regular heavy (3 or more drinks per day) alcohol consumption with an increased risk for AF.
“Holiday heart” is a syndrome that refers to a single episode of AF following a weekend of binge drinking. Experts cite that AF can occur in up to 60% of binge drinkers who are otherwise healthy. Japanese researchers found that heavy alcohol users had a 50% higher risk for AF than non-drinkers and light consumers. They also noted that for each additional drink (10 grams of alcohol) consumed per day, the risk of AF rose by 8%.
A recent study published in Circulation studied the alcohol intake and EKGs of 16,415 people in Denmark. It was found that men who had 35 or more drinks per week had a 45 to 63% increased risk for developing AF, compared to men who drank less than one drink per week.
Heavy alcohol drinking is thought to cause AF by changing the structure of the heart and/or by interfering with the heart’s electrical system. Chronic heavy drinking is linked to as many as 60 diseases, including anemia, cancer, cirrhosis and dementia. To minimize the risk of alcohol-related diseases, experts recommend limiting daily alcohol consumption to 1-2 drinks and having 2-3 alcohol-free days per week.
Do Plastic Food Storage Contribute to Arrhythmia?
The Food and Drug Administration outlawed the use of bisphenol-SA (BPA) in plastic baby bottles and manufacturers have removed it from many of their plastic products. But, a common substitute (bisphenol-S, BPS), can leach into food and drinks in the same way BPA does.
A recent study reported in Environmental Health Perspectives exposed lab rats to low doses of BPS. Female rats experienced increased heart rates, and with added stress, they had irregular heartbeats, or arrhythmia. While this study is far from conclusive, using glass or metal storage containers instead of plastic ones made with these chemicals may help reduce the risk of arrhythmia.
AF Risk Factors
As we age, AF risk increases. In a study of 1.9 million people, 70% of people with AF were 65 or older. Men and white people from European ancestry are more likely to have the condition, and North America has the highest incidence. AF is on the rise; one study estimated that 5.6 million people will have AF by 2050 (up from 2.3 million in 1997).
Other risk factors for developing AF include high blood pressure; obesity; chronic conditions such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, kidney disease and asthma; underlying heart disease; lung diseases; sleep apnea; and family history of the disease.
How AF is treated depends on how severe the symptoms are, how long the condition has been active, and whether heart disease is present. Not everyone with AF requires treatment. Sometimes it resolves on its own, and people without symptoms or heart problems may not require any intervention. Treatment goals and options include:
- Preventing blood clots from forming. When blood pools in the atria, blood clots can form. If they break off and travel to the brain, a stroke can result. Blood thinning medications (warfarin, heparin, aspirin) can prevent clots from forming.
- Managing the rate at which the ventricles contract so that they have enough time to fill fully with blood. Medications such as beta blockers and calcium channel blockers slow the heart rate. These medications do not reverse an abnormal heart rhythm but reduce symptoms and help patients feel better.
- Restoring a normal heart rhythm so the atria and ventricles work together to pump blood. Medicines or procedures (cardioversion and ablation) are used to control the heart’s rhythm when a patient has just started having AF or when heart rate control is ineffective.
- Treating any underlying disorder that may be causing or increasing the risk of AF.
- Changing lifestyle habits, such as reducing alcohol intake; eating a diet rich in lean protein, fruits and vegetables; reducing salt intake; quitting smoking; avoiding caffeine and other stimulants; and reducing stress.
If you have AF, give KnovaSolutions a call. Our clinicians can help you learn more about the condition and answer your questions. Call 800/355-0885, M–F, 8 am-5 pm, MT.
We encourage you to leave a comment or question below and a KnovaSolutions nurse or pharmacist will reply.
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The information contained in this newsletter is for general, educational purposes. It should not be considered a replacement for consultation with your healthcare provider. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your healthcare provider.