Explaining atrial fibrillation

In late 2013, the World Health Organization released results from a data analysis that examined atrial fibrillation and its prevalence across the globe. The results were troubling, indicating that 33.5 million people worldwide have the condition.

If those figures don’t raise an eyebrow, that’s likely because few people are familiar with atrial fibrillation, in spite of its prevalence. A broader understanding of atrial fibrillation, often referred to as AF, may help people reduce their likelihood of developing the condition.

What is atrial fibrillation?

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute notes that atrial fibrillation is the most common type of arrhythmia, which is a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat. AF occurs when rapid, disorganized electrical signals cause the heart’s two upper chambers, known as the atria, to contract very quickly and irregularly.

What happens when a person has atrial fibrillation?

The heart is not functioning properly when a person has atrial fibrillation. That’s because blood pools in the atria when a person has AF, and because of that pooling, the blood is not pumped completely into the heart’s two lower chambers, which are known as the ventricles. As a result, the heart’s upper and lower chambers do not work in conjunction as they do when the heart is fully healthy.

Are there symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

Some people with AF do not feel symptoms and only learn of their condition after physical examinations. That highlights the importance of scheduling annual physicals for all people, but especially for people with a personal or family history of heart trouble.

According to the American Heart Association, the most common symptom of AF is a quivering or fluttering heartbeat, which is caused by abnormal firing of electrical impulses. Anyone who feels such a symptom or suspects their heartbeat is abnormal should consult a physician


In addition to a quivering or fluttering heartbeat, the AHA notes that people with AF may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

· General fatigue

· Dizziness

· Shortness of breath and anxiety

· Weakness

· Faintness or confusion

· Fatigue when exercising

· Sweating

· Chest pain or pressure

The AHA warns that people experiencing chest pain or pressure are having a medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention. Whether or not symptoms of AF are detected, the condition can still increase a person’s risk for serious medical problems, including stroke.

Who is at risk for atrial fibrillation?

No one is immune to atrial fibrillation, though risk of developing the condition rises as a person ages. Men are more likely than women to develop AF, which the NHLBI notes is more common among whites than African Americans or Hispanic Americans.

People suffering from hyperthyroidism, a condition characterized by excessive amounts of the thyroid hormone, are at greater risk for AF than those without the condition. In addition, people who are obese and those who have been diagnosed with diabetes or lung disease are at greater risk for AF than those without such


The NHLBI also notes that AF is more common in people who have:

  • High blood pressure
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Heart failure
  • Rheumatic heart disease
  • Structural heart defects
  • Pericarditis
  • Congenital heart defects

Can atrial fibrillation be prevented?

There is no guaranteed way to prevent AF, though certain lifestyle choices can reduce a person’s risk for the condition. A heart-healthy diet that’s low in cholesterol, saturated fat and trans fat and also includes daily servings of various whole grains, fruits and vegetables can lower a person’s risk for AF. Daily physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking also can lower a person’s risk.

Atrial fibrillation is a rising threat across the globe. More information about AF can be found at www.heart.org.