Here are some clues to help prevent this hidden health threat
It might feel like a quivering in your chest, or like your heartbeat is out of rhythm. Or you may not feel anything at all. It’s possible you may have a life-threatening yet common heart rhythm disorder called atrial fibrillation and have no symptoms.
Atrial fibrillation (also called AFib or AF) is a type of irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). This chaotic heart rhythm can result in blood clots, stroke, congestive heart failure and other heart-related complications. It’s estimated that between 2.7 million and 6.1 million Americans have Afib; however, researchers estimate that 40% of people who have AFib have an asymptomatic version, termed “Silent” AFib.
This undetected form of AFib is associated with an increased risk of embolic stroke, a blood clot cutting off blood flow to the brain, and systemic embolism, a dangerous blockage of the arteries located in the brain and other organs. According to the American Heart Association, you are five times more likely to have a stroke with the silent form of AFib.
How can you find out if you have Silent AFib before it’s too late? Symptoms may be present during an electrocardiogram test (EKG) to measure the heart’s electrical activity, but are sometimes absent, making the condition difficult to diagnose.
“A regular checkup with your doctor can help identify risk factors that would increase the likelihood of developing asymptomatic atrial fibrillation,” says Dr. Imran Sheikh, a cardiologist and electrophysiologist at Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay, Wis. “Patients with asymptomatic AFib may have progression of their AFib that would then lead to symptoms of shortness of breath, fatigue, palpitations, stroke or even heart failure.”
Your risk factors help with early diagnosis when symptoms aren’t present.
“If you are over 60, have high blood pressure or have chronic conditions like obesity, sleep apnea, an overactive thyroid, coronary artery disease or diabetes, have your doctor discuss which monitoring approach is appropriate to catch irregularities,” says Dr. Sheikh.
“AFib and heart failure are closely related. AFib can put you at greater risk for heart failure, and heart failure can lead to AFib. If the heart’s upper chambers are in AFib, those chambers are quivering rather than pumping, decreasing the efficiency with which the heart pumps blood. In addition, the top chambers of the heart will be out of sync with the bottom chambers, which can cause heart failure,” explains Dr. Sheikh. “With AFib, your heart will beat faster than is appropriate for the activity you are doing. The heart then fatigues and becomes dilated; this is what we call heart failure. Many times, in patients who develop heart failure from AFib, if we successfully treat the AFib, the heart failure may resolve.”
There is hope for detection with new research helping to spot Silent AFib in some patients with artificial intelligence (AI). A 2019 Mayo Clinic study published in The Lancet found an artificial intelligence-enabled electrocardiograph (ECG) could detect the signature of atrial fibrillation during normal sinus rhythm and help to diagnose Silent AFib in individuals who are not asymptomatic. Available in the next few years, this technology has the potential to be used as a screening tool by clinicians.
While the use of this technology may help with diagnosis in the future, doing your part to maintain a healthy heart is the best way to prevent Silent AFib.
- Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise
- Avoid or limit alcohol, caffeine and smoking
- Manage conditions like sleep apnea and diabetes
- Take high blood pressure medications as advised by your doctor
Want to learn more about your risk for heart disease? Take a free, quick online risk assessment by clicking here.
About the Author
Bonnie Farber, health enews contributor, is a communications professional in the Public Affairs and Marketing Operations Department at Advocate Aurora Health. Her experience includes integrated product marketing in the biotechnology field, strategic communications at American Family Insurance and UW Credit Union, and marketing communications consulting for non-profit organizations in Wisconsin and Minnesota. She holds a degree in History from University of Wisconsin-Madison and enjoys playing music in a Brazilian percussion band and volunteering for a listener-sponsored radio station in her free time.