Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Day: know the signs and treatment options

Heart fluttering or rapid beats may be signs of the condition, which could lead to a heart attack or stroke

Leaving the condition undiagnosed may cause symptoms to worsen. Photo: Getty
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A leading cardiologist in the UAE has said that people should be aware of the signs and symptoms of atrial fibrillation, a condition that affects heart rhythm, as symptoms could worsen if it is left unchecked.

Fereidoon Shafiei, a specialist at Mediclinic City Hospital in Dubai, said that without treatment, people with atrial fibrillation (AF) are more likely to have a stroke or heart attack.

In addition to knowing the symptoms, people should follow a healthy lifestyle to reduce their chances of developing the condition, Dr Shafiei said.

Because of a lack of full awareness of atrial fibrillation, the first diagnosis may be when patients are having a stroke, which is after damage has already occurred
Dr Fereidoon Shafiei, Mediclinic City Hospital

“Because of a lack of full awareness of atrial fibrillation, the first diagnosis may be when patients are having a stroke, which is … after damage has already occurred,” he said.

“That’s why we would like the community to have much more awareness as to the signs and symptoms of the disease.”

Speaking before World Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Day, Dr Shafiei said people with AF may experience a fluttering in their chest or rapid heartbeats, even when resting.

Dr Shafiei said that AF could go undiagnosed for several reasons. Sometimes it is asymptomatic, with an estimated 15 to 30 per cent of patients globally not experiencing any obvious signs.

A lack of follow-up with a doctor over suspicious symptoms is another reason why the condition may not be diagnosed properly and treated.

If left untreated, AF makes a person five times more likely to have a heart attack and 2.4 times more likely to have a stroke.

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Most people, he said, can be returned to having a normal heart rhythm either through medication or ablation, a “very precise” procedure in which small scars are made on the heart to prevent abnormal electrical activity.

Treatments typically have a success rate of more than 95 per cent.

“Over the past two decades, we’ve made significant improvements in the management of atrial fibrillation,” Dr Shafiei said.

Several factors can cause AF, among them heart valve disease, pulmonary artery disease, obesity and sleep apnoea, where breathing stops and starts during sleep.

Anyone experiencing symptoms should seek medical attention, Dr Shafiei said.

“If you feel that something is not right, if you feel your heart is beating irregularly, or have other signs of fluttering in your chest, seek medical attention,” he said.

“Let your doctor figure out what’s wrong with the heart so you can have earlier diagnosis and more successful treatment.”

To reduce the chance of developing the condition, Dr Shafiei said people should exercise regularly and not become obese.

“Atrial fibrillation can occur at any age, but the majority of people are older. About 70 per cent are between 65 to 85,” Dr Shafiei said.

However, he said sometimes patients in their 20s have the condition, often because of obesity, sleep apnoea or a genetic factor that puts them at increased risk.

When younger people are treated promptly, such as with ablation, they can avoid the longer-term consequences, Dr Shafiei said.

A study from South Korea published earlier this month in the journal Jama Network highlighted the role of lifestyle factors and how the condition does not only affect older people.

The researchers found a 25 per cent increased chance of developing the condition among people aged 20 to 39 who consumed large amounts of alcohol over several years.

“Given that AF induces fatal complications, including stroke, the prognosis is worse when AF is diagnosed at an early age,” the researchers wrote.

“As the risk of AF and stroke is lowered by alcohol abstinence under various circumstances, young adults should be educated about the risk of AF and its association with drinking.”

The researchers, who looked at outcomes for more than 1.5 million people listed in the country’s National Health Insurance Service database, said reducing intake “is associated with improved clinical outcomes”.

Updated: September 10, 2022, 4:00 AM