Have you ever felt your heart flutter, race or skip a beat? Most of us have at some point. But if this happens frequently, you may have atrial fibrillation (AFib).
Afib is a problem with the heart’s rhythm. Normally, the two upper chambers of the heart (the atria) contract, followed by the two lower chambers (the ventricles), in a steady pattern. With AFib, the electrical impulses that control this rhythm become irregular.
Women’s hearts typically beat between 60 and 100 times per minute; in women with AFib, the heartbeat may be erratic, or may beat very rapidly -- sometimes exceeding 200 beats per minute. When someone is “in AFib,” the heart beats in a rapid, chaotic way.
In addition to a rapid or irregular heartbeat, symptoms of AFib may include unexplained shortness of breath, chest pain or dizziness. However, some people have no symptoms at all.
About 30 percent of all strokes in the United States are related to AFib. Because the condition disrupts the heart’s ability to pump effectively, blood can pool in the atria and form clots. If these blood clots travel to the brain, they can cause a stroke.
People with AFib have a stroke risk about five times higher than normal, and strokes related to AFib tend to be more disabling than other strokes. In people with AFib, clots are most likely to occur in an area of the left atrium called the left atrial appendage.
AFib more commonly affects men than women, but after age 75, 60 percent of people with AFib are women. Moreover, women with AFib are more likely than men to have a stroke. Women with a history of heart disease or high blood pressure have a high risk for AFib. Along with stroke, untreated AFib can also lead to heart failure and chronic fatigue.
Prescription medications can help women with AFib reduce their stroke risk by causing the blood to become thinner, thereby reducing the likelihood of clots. Women who experience a rapid or erratic heartbeat, unexplained shortness of breath or other symptoms should talk to their physician about their risk and how to take care of their hearts.
Scripps Women’s Heart Center provides heart care for women, by women. Our female cardiologists are experts in cardiology and integrative medicine, and specialize in female heart disease. We’re dedicated to empowering women to take care of their hearts through education, lifestyle and, when needed, expert medical care.