You’ve probably heard by now that you have to keep an eye on your heart health as you get older. But while many of us are informed on what the signs of a heart attack are, there’s another common cardiovascular problem that affects close to three million Americans a year, and your doctor might not even be screening for it: Atrial fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation, or A-fib, is an irregular heartbeat disorder that, if left untreated, can lead to all sorts of larger issues, including heart attacks, strokes, blood clots, heart failure, and more. In fact, it raises the risk of strokes in women six-fold and heart attacks as much as 11 times.
With A-fib, the different chambers of the heart don’t contract and relax at the same time as the organ’s ventricles, making the entire cardiovascular system not able to pump blood as easily. As a result, you may not be able to create as much oxygen-rich blood as you normally would, and you can’t circulate it as effectively through your body. While A-fib may cause heart failure and strokes down the line, it’ll make you feel fatigued and breathless in the short term.
The larger question, however, is why it’s not spotted as often as it should be. Many people don’t realize they have an irregular heartbeat to begin with and don’t think to talk to their doctor. It’s easy to write off symptoms like a fluttering heart or exhaustion as temporary problems due to common lifestyle choices. For example, you may think your heart is just beating fast because you had your morning cup of coffee and often feel jittery afterwards. That’s all the more reason to go to regular check-ups and advocate for a more comprehensive check into your heart health, like undergoing an electrocardiogram or receiving blood tests.
Luckily, there are plenty of treatment options for atrial fibrillation. Your doctor might do an electrical cardioversion to “reset” a regular heartbeat through electrical pulses or put you on medication like beta blockers to maintain a consistent heart rhythm. Regardless, the most important thing you can do to catch A-fib early is to talk to a medical professional at the first sign of potential trouble. It’s better to be safe than sorry!