Cardiologists have said they are seeing many young Emiratis, some in their twenties and early thirties, suffering from a condition that is typically seen in patient those over 50 years old.
Doctors at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi said atrial fibrillation usually develops in people who are at least in their later years.
Characterised by an irregular and rapid heartbeat, atrial fibrillation is caused by the upper chambers of the heart generating chaotic electrical signals. Over time it can lead to serious complications such as stroke and heart failure.
“The number of young patients with atrial fibrillation is a concern because it is occurring much earlier than the global average. Atrial fibrillation is generally a condition people develop in their fifties, sixties or seventies, but we are seeing it in patients younger than 30 years old,” says Dr Khalid Al Muti, a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
The condition tends to run in families and those who suffer from obesity, blood pressure, diabetes and sleep apnoea are more likely to develop atrial fibrillation.
Sleep apnoea is a pause in breathing during sleep often followed by loud snoring.
“Because it can go unnoticed in some patients for a long time, a real risk with atrial fibrillation are the severe complications it can cause,” says Dr Al Muti.
“Around one third of strokes can be attributed to atrial fibrillation, as the irregular heart rhythm can cause blood clots which then travel to the brain.”
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Stroke is one of the leading causes of death in the UAE and about half of all stroke victims in the country are under the age of 45, compared to the global average age of 65.
Dr Hani Sabbour, advanced heart failure cardiologist at the same clinic.
“We have seen a pattern that has been repeated multiple times in many cardiovascular diseases - we have noticed that with conventional cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks, stroke, heart failure and now atrial fibrillation, the average age that we see here is in the mid 30s to 40s. Most of the European literature shows that patients start to develop these in their fifties and sixties unlike here.”
Atrial fibrillation is not caused by obesity or diabetes but they can be the caused of its early onset. There is a strong genetic component to the disease that is also more common in the UAE.
“There is a genetic disorder that we have found here in the UAE that is very common – Brugada syndrome," Dr Sabbour said.
Brugada syndrome is a genetic disease that is characterised by abnormal electrocardiogram (ECG) findings and an increased risk of sudden cardiac death.
"In 14 years of practice in the US, I only saw two patients. In the UAE since I've been here since 2013, I’ve seen over a 100 patients which is more than usual.
"So there is a genetic component travelling through the population and this kind of disease can cause atrial fibrillation as well as a more serious condition called ventricular fibrillation.”
“We do know that diabetes is very common and very prevalent in young children, but for a rare syndrome such as Burgada syndrome it does seem that it is more usually prevalent here," he said.
For atrial fibrillation, early detection is essential.
“Early detection is essential in preventing some of the terrible effects of atrial fibrillation such as stroke,” Dr Al Muti said.
“We use the latest technology including sophisticated monitoring systems, implantable devices and even smartphone gadgets to detect abnormal rhythms that suggest atrial fibrillation. We aim to empower our patients and make them part of the treatment team by recognising and documenting their own rhythm disturbances.”
Once detected, atrial fibrillation can be managed with medications and sometimes with certain procedures to help restore a normal heart rhythm and to reduce the risk of blood clots and stroke.
In some patients, doctors may insert a small monitor under the patient’s skin to monitor his or her heart rhythm and alert them when it becomes irregular. The monitor automatically alerts the physician’s office allowing for early intervention which can greatly improve the patient’s chances of recovery.