(BPT) - Shortness of breath. Heart palpitations. When Danita first noticed these occasional abnormalities, she didn’t give them much thought. After all, she figured, aging and menopause can bring their fair share of physical changes, and the feelings would always go away.
“I’d be walking around the house cleaning or getting ready to cook, and I would get a heart palpitation. I would sit down, rest and then continue what I was doing because the symptoms would be gone,” she explained.
After noticing periodic symptoms, Danita’s colleague convinced her to see a doctor. Soon after, she learned what she had been experiencing was actually something serious: a common type of arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, called atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation, known as AFib for short, causes the heart to beat much faster than normal. For those who have AFib, risk of having a stroke increases by approximately five times.
Danita’s story may seem rare, but in fact, AFib is projected to affect around 8.4 million Americans in 2020. "It's important to know about AFib and the risk of stroke. However, in my experience, many people don't know about AFib," explained Andrea Russo, M.D., immediate past-president of the Heart Rhythm Society and director of electrophysiology and arrhythmia services at Cooper University Hospital.
According to a Harris Poll survey of 1,010 U.S. adults fielded on behalf of the Bristol Myers Squibb-Pfizer Alliance educational initiative, Matter of Moments, the majority of people over the age of 40 are unfamiliar with AFib. The Matter of Moments program encourages those at risk for AFib who are experiencing symptoms, or those who already have the condition, to take charge of their health by talking to their doctor.
Although learning about the condition was scary at first, Danita now feels empowered to continue working with her doctor to help manage her AFib and to spread awareness of the condition so that others can do the same. “I keep up with my cardiologist to make sure I’m doing OK.”
Luckily, she’s also been able to help others learn more about the condition, like her sister, who was experiencing symptoms similar to her own. Danita recognized those symptoms and encouraged her to go see a doctor, which led to her AFib diagnosis. While AFib cannot be self-diagnosed, awareness of AFib risk factors and symptoms may help people identify when they may need to speak to their doctor.
AFib and stroke: What’s the connection?
In a patient with AFib, your heart beats much faster than normal. When this happens, the blood cannot effectively move from the upper chambers of the heart to the lower chambers of the heart, which may lead to blood pooling in the heart, potentially forming a clot. If that blood clot enters the bloodstream and gets stuck in an artery that leads to the brain, it can cause a life-threatening or debilitating stroke. For people with AFib, risk of having a stroke increases by approximately five times. Furthermore, AFib-related strokes are more severe than non-AFib related strokes.
What are some symptoms of AFib?
All patients may not experience AFib symptoms in the same way, so the condition may not be obvious to those living with AFib. Some have no symptoms, but those who do may experience shortness of breath or heart palpitations, like Danita, or other symptoms including irregular heartbeat, light-headedness, chest pain or fatigue, among others.
What are some risk factors for AFib?
For Danita, after learning more about the condition, she realized that she had AFib risk factors, like being overweight and having a history of heart disease in her family. Other AFib risk factors include but are not limited to, being 65 or older, diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, heavy alcohol use, prior heart attacks and diabetes.
Talk to a doctor
For Danita, like many adults with AFib, learning that she had AFib came as a complete surprise, and she was equally unfamiliar with what the diagnosis meant. “I wish I had known AFib existed. I had never even heard of the condition, otherwise I would have been more proactive about speaking with my doctor,” she stated. “I was in bad shape and I didn’t know it.”
This AFib Awareness Month, commit to getting the facts about AFib and stroke risk. If you’re experiencing symptoms or have AFib risk factors, talk to your doctor to take charge of your health. Outside of in-person appointments, telehealth may also be a possible option to get in touch with your physician, address pressing health needs and learn about AFib and the associated stroke risk. Some common questions to ask your doctor are:
- What are some possible AFib symptoms?
- Do I have any risk factors for AFib?
- What are the complications related to AFib?
- How can AFib lead to stroke?
- Should I get tested for AFib?
Already diagnosed with AFib?
In the case that you have already been diagnosed with AFib, it’s important to work with your doctor to help manage the condition and talk about a plan that may be right for you.
While an AFib diagnosis can impact people differently, collaborating with a doctor allows you to be proactively involved in the management of your health.
About the Matter of Moments survey:
This survey was conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of the Bristol Myers Squibb-Pfizer Alliance among 1,010 U.S. adults 40+ and 500 atrial fibrillation (AFib) patients ages 40+ between May 9 and May 28, 2019. Figures for age by gender, education, income, race/ethnicity, region, size of household, marital status and employment status were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in their respective population. Learn more about the survey findings.
To learn more about AFib, visit AMatterofMoments.com and talk to your doctor.