Heart Foundation GP Champion FRASER HAMILTON talks about atrial fibrillation (AF) – one of the fastest growing forms of heart disease.
What is AF?
Around 80,000 people are affected by AF while, importantly, there could be as many as another 20,000 New Zealanders who have it and don’t know. The risk of developing AF increases with age. It affects four in every 100 people over the age of 65 and 10 in every 100 people above 80 years old.
For many people, the first time they and their loved ones hear about AF is at the time of diagnosis.
AF is a common type of irregular heart rhythm where the top two rooms of the heart (atria) start making extra fast and irregular electrical signals. These extra signals make the atria twitch or quiver (known as fibrillation). These signals also affect a person’s pulse, making it irregular and sometimes fast.
Although AF is not usually life-threatening, people with the condition are five times more likely than the general population to have a stroke. Because the atria are not pumping normally, clots can form in the chambers and dislodge flowing to the brain where they cause a stroke.
AF affects each person differently. There are three types of AF that you might hear clinicians describe:
- Paroxysmal AF – This is a type of AF that comes and goes. Episodes can last for hours or days but not usually longer than a week. It goes away on its own without any medical treatment
- Persistent AF – AF episodes that last longer than seven days at a time and generally needs medical treatment with pharmacological/chemical or electrical cardioversion to bring the heart rhythm back to normal
- Permanent AF – AF that is present all the time and does not return to a normal rhythm even with medical treatment
Symptoms of AF
Symptoms vary between people and may include: feeling breathless or having difficulty breathing; dizziness, lightheaded or feeling faint; heart palpitations; tiredness or weakness; chest discomfort; and difficulty exercising. It is important to note that not all palpitations or irregular heartbeats are caused by AF. A person may simply be experiencing early or extra beats due to anxiety or stress.
Some people with AF will experience only mild symptoms, others will notice them in their daily life while most may have no symptoms at all.
The causes of AF are not always clear but the risk of developing AF increases with the following risk factors:
It is important to talk to a health professional, if you have any symptoms of AF or if symptoms change or get worse. The good news is that it can be successfully managed with help from a doctor or nurse. Knowing about and properly managing AF can lower a person’s risk of having stroke and enable them to live a full and healthy life. Some recent scientific work from Australia has shown that AF can be reduced significantly by exercise and weight loss.
To support people with AF, the Heart Foundation has a website - www.heartfoundation.org.nz/atrial-fibrillation. The site helps Kiwis understand what AF is, what the symptoms and triggers are, and how to overcome the challenges it presents. It aims to answer common questions and provide advice for managing the condition on a daily basis. The website, which is part of a wider suite of HeartHelp tools (www.hearthelp.org.nz), was developed with input from a large number of people, including health professionals and New Zealanders living with AF.