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National Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month

Important Facts for Women about Atrial Fibrillation

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death among U.S. women. With American women living longer than American men, it’s important to understand and recognize atrial fibrillation (AFib) as a serious heart health threat that’s increasing among women aged 65+ years.

Some AFib statistics:

  • It’s estimated that 12.1 million in the U.S. will have AFib in 2030.
  • In 2019, AFib was noted on 183,321 death certificates and was the underlying cause of death in 26,535 of those deaths.
  • Those of European descent are more likely to have AFib than African Americans.
  • Because the number of AFib cases increases with age and women generally live longer than men, more women than men experience AFib.

Undermining quality and longevity of life, AFib often doesn’t present easily recognized symptoms in women, similarly as heart attack symptoms differ from those experienced by men. As a result, AFib diagnosis among women usually occurs much later with more presenting symptoms, which increases risk of serious health consequences or even death.

Although U.S. women face lower incidence of AFib than men, the threat to females increases dramatically due to their longevity. Research indicates women diagnosed with AFib continue to have worse major adverse cardiovascular outcomes as compared to men, including mortality plus stroke risk and severity.

Women with AFib experience worse quality of life and treatment complications, especially relating to stroke prevention. Women are more often treated with cardiac glycosides compared to men, a treatment which is associated with higher breast cancer risk and mortality. Women are also less often referred for catheter ablation for rhythm control and have more complications with procedures (such as catheter ablation and left atrial appendage endocardial occlusion devices.)

Most importantly, those women (and men) with AFib, whether the condition is diagnosed or unknown, face a 5-times greater risk of stroke occurrence. It’s important to note women especially have higher risk of stroke, even when following prescribed AFib treatment.

September is designated National Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month. Your Capital Women’s Care team explains atrial fibrillation, its risk factors, symptoms, causes and treatments plus outlines important tips you can initiate to reduce your personal AFib risk, so you have best opportunity to enjoy a long quality life.

What is AFib?

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is an irregular heartbeat where the atria doesn’t contract in a strong, regular rhythm. During AFib episodes, the heart may not pump enough oxygen-rich blood out to the body.

Those diagnosed with AFib have a 5-time greater stroke risk because when the heart is in AFib, blood can become static and may pool inside the heart’s upper chamber (either the left atrium or within the left atrial appendage.) This pooling of the blood increases risk of clots forming. When a clot is pumped out from the heart, it can travel to the brain or block an artery within the brain and cause a stroke. The blocked arteries prevent the tissue “downstream” from acquiring oxygen-rich blood. Without oxygen, the tissue dies.

Those with AFib are at greatest risk for experiencing stroke or eventual heart failure due to continued weakening of the heart muscle.

AFib Risk Factors

AFib risk increases with age. High blood pressure, the risk for which also increases with advancing age, accounts for about 1 in 5 AFib cases. Other identified risk factors include:

  • obesity
  • European ancestry
  • diabetes
  • heart failure
  • ischemic heart disease
  • hyperthyroidism
  • chronic kidney disease
  • moderate to heavy alcohol use
  • smoking
  • and having enlargement of the left heart chambers.

It’s important to get regular checkups to monitor your health for new conditions in addition to evaluating diagnosed condition treatments to reduce your personal AFib risk.

AFib Symptoms

Studies indicate that among individuals with AFib, women are more likely than men to have symptoms and to seek care, yet determining an AFib diagnosis in women isn’t clearcut, as oftentimes women present no symptoms at all or symptoms that vary from those experienced by men.

For both sexes, typical AFib symptoms include:

  • racing or pounding heart
  • palpitations (heart fluttering or irregular beats)
  • shortness of breath or fainting
  • anxiety
  • fatigue, dizziness or lightheadedness
  • and chest pain.

Yet men and women often experience AFib differently:

  • Women are more likely than men to experience atypical symptoms, like fatigue and weakness.
  • Women tend to have more frequent and longer-lasting AFib episodes than men, thus increasing risk of stroke.
  • Women tend to have higher heart rates during AFib episodes, increasing likelihood of stroke.
  • Women with AFib may be at higher stroke and thromboembolism risk than men; women who experience stroke tend to have strokes greater in severity and damage, including death.

It’s important to remain vigilant concerning your heart health and talk with your doctor if you’re experiencing heart health changes, even if they subside. With proper care and monitoring from your practitioner, those diagnosed with AFib can do normal everyday activities according to their practitioner’s guidance and recommendations.

AFib Causes

Most diagnosed with AFib don’t know how they developed the condition, which is caused by a combination of factors and triggers.
Possible AFib risk factors include several heart health factors:

  • high blood pressure
  • prior heart attack or heart disease
  • diabetes
  • sleep apnea
  • and prior heart surgery.

There are also behaviors that may be associated with increased AFib risk, including:

  • excessive alcohol
  • smoking
  • and regular prolonged, high-intensity athletic conditioning.

Common “triggers” which are proven to induce AFib include:

  • excessive caffeine and energy drinks
  • excessive exercise that induces high heart rate for extended time
  • excessive alcohol
  • stress or anxiety
  • and poor sleep and/or sleep apnea.

Those diagnosed with AFib generally don’t die solely from an episode, but death can occur from stroke caused by an AFib episode. Effective AFib management in conjunction with your doctor and other health professionals’ recommendations is vital to prevent complications resulting from AFib episodes that hinder quality of life or shorten longevity.

AFib Treatments

In specific instances, medical intervention may restore the heart’s normal rate and rhythm functions.

AFib interventions may include:

Women face unique challenges with AFib treatment, as research indicates women face greater mortality, procedural and stroke risk while receiving treatment. It’s imperative to weigh treatment options based on your overall personal health history plus the risks and benefits associated with your practitioner’s treatment recommendations to devise and implement an effective personal AFib monitoring and management plan.

Reduce Your AFib Risk

There are many things you can do to help reduce your AFib risk: 

  • Know and monitor your numbers. Research has proven having both high Body Mass Index (BMI) in combination with high systolic blood pressure or hypertension determined the highest AFib risk in both sexes. Monitor your weight and have your blood pressure screened regularly to reduce your AFib risk.
  • Eliminate smoking. If you smoke, strive to kick the habit. Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke to further decrease your risk.
  • Limit alcohol intake. Excessive alcohol consumption is a proven risk of developing AFib. If you do choose to drink, limit yourself to 1 serving of alcohol per day. Men should consume no more than 2 drinks daily; women should consume no more than 1 daily.
  • Follow an exercise plan approved by your doctor. Too much high-intensity, prolonged athletic conditioning can lead to irregular heartbeat, or AFib. Before initiating exercise or changing your current fitness program, consult your doctor.
  • Practice good sleep habits. Institute a relaxing, nighttime ritual before retiring. Adults should get 8 to 9 hours of sleep nightly. Follow sleep apnea treatments if you’re diagnosed and talk to your doctor if you’re not getting quality sleep that leaves you feeling well rested.
  • Identify and implement stress management techniques that work for you. Stress and anxiety are AFib risk factors within control. Be mindful of your stress triggers and adhere to stress management techniques (like relaxed deep breathing) to reduce AFib risk.
  • Reduce caffeine consumption. Caffeine is a known stimulant that increases heart rate. Be mindful of your daily caffeine intake, including beverages like coffees and energy drinks.
  • Manage diagnosed health conditions properly. Follow your doctor’s prescribed recommendations for all diagnosed conditions, especially if you have previous heart health issues, diabetes, high blood pressure or hypertension, an overactive thyroid, chronic kidney disease, or sleep apnea, all of which constitute greater AFib risk.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Proper nutrition that includes whole fruits, vegetables and grains; lean proteins and low-fat dairy; and ample daily fiber, along with avoidance of unhealthy fats, sugar, sodium and processed foods helps you avoid obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and hypertension, all key factors of increased AFib risk. Be sure to eat regular meals interspersed with healthy snack choices throughout each day to keep your body and mind well fueled.

Your Capital Women’s Care team of women’s health experts is here to answer your questions or concerns relating to your heart health and personal AFib risk or any women’s health issue. Our staff of compassionate doctors, specialists, nurses and support staff prioritize providing you and your family comprehensive care and treatment, so you enjoy optimal health and a long quality life.