Atrial fibrillation (or AF) is a common form of atypical or irregular heartbeat (or arrhythmia). It is a serious heart condition affecting an estimated 300,000 plus people in Australia and 35,000 in New Zealand. It can lead to serious health issues such as stroke. AF tends to occur in people 65 years and older. Symptoms may include heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness and fatigue. Some people have no symptoms at all.
Atrial fibrillation is a type of abnormal heart rhythm that results ina quivering or irregular heartbeat. In AF, the heart's upper chambers (atria) ‘quiver’ or contract irregularly and are not able to fully pump blood into the lower chambers (ventricles). This may make it hard for the heart to pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the lungs and the rest of the body (heart failure) and may cause other serious problems such as blood clots in the heart that may break off to cause strokes., even though AF is a serious condition, living a normal and active life with AF is possible especially if you follow some important points.
Talk To Your Doctor And Pharmacist
AF is usually suspected during a visit to a doctor or other health care professional (by listening to your heart and feeling your pulse).
If you’ve been diagnosed with AF, it’s important that you follow up regularly with your doctor. People with AF have a 5 times greater chance of getting a stroke than people without AF. Other health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure often accompany AF and also affect the risk of stroke with AF. So it’s important that you and your doctor come up with an appropriate treatment plan that may lower your risk of stroke and other complications.
Doctors may treat AF with medications that control the heart rate and rhythm or medications that prevent blood clots, or with procedures such as cardiac ablation (getting rid of tissue in the heart that may be causing abnormal heart rhythm). Follow your doctor’s advice and take your medications exactly as prescribed. If you think you may have trouble with this, or are concerned about side effects, speak with your doctor right away.
You can also speak to your pharmacist about taking your medications properly. One of the challenges in managing AF and other health conditions is that some patients do not take their medication at all or they do not take them appropriately. Your pharmacist can help you manage AF in several ways—he or she can:
- Review your medications with you and discuss why taking them is important
- Explain how to take your medication properly
- Check for interactions with other drugs or foods
- Discuss potential side effects associated with your medications
- Help you understand your treatment plan
If you think you have experienced a medication adverse event, you should contact your doctor or pharmacist.
Make Lifestyle Changes
Your healthcare team may recommend lifestyle changes. Many people with AF are in their 60’s and older, and may have been living with health issues for a long time. While lifestyle changes can be difficult to take on, it may be easier to focus on the positive aspects—such as potentially feeling better and being better able to manage symptoms.
Here are some things you can do to manage AF and control symptoms:
- Quit smoking. Nicotine can raise your heart rate and blood pressure, which in turn can worsen AF. To quit, speak with your doctor or pharmacist about smoking cessation programs that may work for you
- Reduce alcohol intake. Alcohol can worsen AF symptoms. Too much alcohol can increase the risk of bleed in people taking certain medications used to treat AF
- Limit caffeine. Caffeine can quicken your heart rate. Limiting stimulants that increase your heart rate may help reduce your risk for AF. You may want to reduce your coffee intake to keep your heart rate more regular
- Eat healthy. The Australian Heart Foundation and the New Zealand Heart Foundation recommend a heart healthy diet that is low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol. Talk with your doctor to find out if this may be the right diet for you
- Exercise regularly. Exercise can help decrease your risk for heart disease and therefore may help prevent atrial fibrillation, but first ask your doctor about what kinds of exercises are appropriate for you. He or she may recommend a program to help you get started
- Ask about vaccines. People with AF may be prone to develop complications after respiratory infections. Be sure to ask your doctor about getting vaccinated against pneumonia and scheduling your yearly flu shot and other vaccinations that may be right for you
- Get support. Include family and friends in your management of AF. They can help you cope with the condition, manage stress and encourage you to stick to your treatment plan
Keep in mind that it’s important to understand AF and to know what to do to manage it. Take the time to talk with your healthcare providers and family and friends about it. If you are living with AF, it’s possible to live a normal active life—and what better way to do it than by staying healthy?
Phil Mendys is a Senior Director, U.S. Medical Affairs, Cardiovascular and Metabolic working as a Region Medical & Research Specialist for Pfizer.
- 1. Ball J, et al. Estimating the current and future prevalence of atrial fibrillation in the Australian adult population. MJA 2015; 202 (1): 32-35. doi: 10.5694/mja14.00238 Accessed 31/01/2017.
- 2. Best Practice Journal New Zealand 2011. Vol 39 Accessed 31/01/2017.
- 3. American Heart Association. Information sheet. Accessed 31/01/2017