September is Atrial Fibrillation Month: What can you do to lower your risk?

Atrial Fibrillation - also referred to as arrhythmia - is a condition in which the heart beats irregularly and often rapidly. Approximately 2.7-6.1 million people of all ages living in the U.S. have the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition affects around 9 percent of all older adults aged 65 or older. While episodes of atrial fibrillation can come and go, experiencing the disease increases an adult's risk of developing other serious health conditions like stroke.

Keeping the heart strong is a crucial component to a healthy lifestyle for seniors. As September is National Atrial Fibrillation Month, it's important for adults to take steps to become more aware of the heart condition and lower their chances of experiencing the onset. To reduce their risk, older adults should gain a deeper understanding of what the disease is and how it's caused.

"Hearts impacted by AFiB my beat at an irregular rate of 100 to 160 beats per minute."

What is atrial fibrillation? Atrial fibrillation involves episodes where the heart's two upper chambers start to beat rapidly and out of time with the lower chambers, creating a fluttering feeling in the person's chest. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, instead of beating at the average 60 to 100 beats per minute, hearts impacted by atrial fibrillation will beat at a rate of 100 to 160 beats per minute

Irregular heart beat usually causes poor blood flow throughout the body, as it inhibits the heart from pumping blood efficiently. This causes blood to gather in the heart chambers, which can lead to blood clots inside the heart if the condition goes untreated. If blood clots do form, they can leave the heart and circulate throughout the bloodstream, ultimately becoming stuck in the arteries or brain to cause stroke or other serious conditions. 

ffIf untreated, atrial fibrillation can lead to blood clots that cause stroke. 

Older adults can check their pulse by pressing their fingers on either their wrist or neck if they experience a spastic feeling in their chest to see if their heart rate is reaching dangerous speeds. If they notice their heart rate is above 100 beats per minute, they should seek medical assistance from their doctors.

What causes the condition? A number of the risk factors attributed to other heart conditions like cardiovascular disease are also associated with the onset of atrial fibrillation. For example, high blood pressure, diabetes, being overweight and poor lifestyle choices like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption will drastically increase an adult's risk of developing the heart condition. 

Lone atrial fibrillation is a form of the disease that is not caused by any heart defects or abnormalities. While the causes are unknown, serious complications are rare with this type of atrial fibrillation and episodes are usually very infrequent. 

By maintaining a healthy lifestyle, adults can lower their risks."

How can the disease be prevented? Although atrial fibrillation can have serious and even life-threatening side effects, the good news is that by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, adults can lower their risk of experiencing the disease. One of the first steps to preventing the onset of the condition is understanding the symptoms. Those with atrial fibrillation may feel dizzy, confused or tired. They may also experience heart palpitations. If older adults feel a combination of these symptoms on a regular basis, they should talk to their doctors and ask for a screening. 

Other preventative measures include getting enough exercise and eating a nutritious diet to keep the heart healthy. The American Heart Association recommended that adults get in at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week, so individuals should consider joining an exercise class at their assisted living communities or asking a couple of friends to take a walk or bike ride a few times a week. Balancing regular workouts with a nutritious diet with plenty of vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fruits will prevent causes of atrial fibrillation like high blood pressure and cholesterol.

As smoking causes lung disease, one of the leading risk factors of atrial fibrillation, adults should try to quit the habit to avoid the onset of the condition. Similarly, excessive alcohol consumption will dehydrate the body and make the heart beat a lot faster, increasing the chances of palpitations and atrial fibrillation. Caffeine should also be consumed in moderation to avoid an irregular heart beat. 

In addition to preventing atrial fibrillation, adults should ensure that they're eating well and staying active to avoid other heart diseases. While atrial fibrillation does impact a large portion of the country's older population, understanding the condition and taking these preventative measures will work toward reducing adults' chances of experiencing it.