Quiz results: Could you have AFib and not know it?
Learn more about the answers to our quiz—including tips from cardiac expert Ahmed Abdelaal, M.D., for how to help keep your heart healthy.
1. AFib occurs when ...
The heart’s electric system malfunctions
Your heart’s primary job is to pump blood. The right side of the heart receives blood from your veins and then pumps it to your lungs to obtain oxygen; the left side takes the oxygenated blood and pumps it throughout your body. In order for this to happen, the four chambers of the heart have to contract, and there’s a natural electrical system that tells them when and how often to do that.
When that timing is right, the heart beats in a steady pattern. But if there’s a glitch in how the electrical impulses are communicated, you can experience an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), such as AFib.
2. Which of the following is an AFib risk factor?
High blood pressure, a family history of AFib and sleep apnea
People who have sleep apnea are four times more likely than those without it to have AFib.
You might not be surprised to learn that high blood pressure, another type of heart disease (like a valve problem) or a family history of AFib can all raise your risk of developing AFib. But sleep apnea—a condition in which you stop breathing for several seconds at a time repeatedly during the night—is another important risk factor to know about.
People who have sleep apnea are four times more likely than those without it to have AFib. While the exact mechanism connecting these two conditions is not fully understood, sleep apnea is closely tied to other cardiovascular problems, because struggling to breathe properly can take a toll on your heart.
3. Most people with AFib are diagnosed ...
At age 65 or older
Millions of Americans have AFib—at least 3 to 6 million, according to the American Heart Association—but the condition becomes much more common as you get older. About 9% of people 65 and older have AFib.
As you age, the risk of other heart problems, such as high blood pressure and coronary artery disease (a hardening of the arteries that occurs as a result of cholesterol and plaque build-up) also goes up.
These other cardiovascular problems can sometimes set the stage for AFib.
4. Which is a common symptom of AFib?
Palpitations or a fluttering sensation in your chest
Some people with AFib don’t have any noticeable symptoms, but most experience heart palpitations, dizziness, fatigue or shortness of breath during an episode.
Sometimes the irregular rhythm stops on its own after a few minutes or even a few hours, but other times patients require medical intervention (medications or an electrical shock) to get their heart beating normally again.
5. To find out if you have AFib, you will need ...
An EKG or Holter monitoring
These tests measure the electrical activity of your heart. An EKG (electrocardiogram) is a non-invasive, in-office procedure during which electrodes are attached to your chest; Holter monitoring is similar, except you wear the device as you go about your daily activities, usually for 24 hours.
Not everyone needs these tests, but your doctor might suggest one or both if he or she hears anything abnormal while listening to your heart with a stethoscope, or if you report palpitations or unusual fatigue. Your doctor might also recommend getting screened if you have any AFib risk factors.
6. True or False: AFib is a progressive disease
If left untreated, AFib can have serious, life-threatening complications, such as a stroke.
If left untreated, AFib usually gets worse, says Dr. Abdelaal. In fact, research shows that one in five patients progress from occasional AFib (in which symptoms come and go and resolve on their own) to persistent AFib (symptoms continue for at least seven days and don’t resolve without treatment) in one year.
“AFib is a progressive disease,” says Dr. Abdelaal. “If left untreated, it can have serious, life-threatening complications, such as a stroke.” That’s why it’s important to seek treatment for AFib as soon as possible. Added incentive: Treatment is more effective when received early on.
7. AFib can be dangerous because ...
Your heart rate can get dangerously high, it could lead to a stroke and it could lead to heart failure
When your heart beats too quickly, proper blood flow through your body may be impeded, raising your risk for heart failure and angina (chest pain caused by lack of blood flow), as well as a stroke if a clot breaks up and blocks blood flow to your brain.
This is why it’s so important to not ignore symptoms, such as heart palpitations, and if you’ve been diagnosed with AFib, to take your medications as prescribed.
8. Which of the following could trigger an AFib episode?
Physical activity, alcohol and hormones
Although it may seem unusual, research suggests that alcohol consumption could trigger AFib. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid the occasional drink altogether, but it’s important to be aware that alcohol may act as a trigger for AFib.
Another possible trigger is sudden or intense physical activity, because it could make your heart race, which has the potential to set off an abnormal rhythm in certain patients. Cardiovascular exercise is encouraged as part of a healthy lifestyle, but always talk to your healthcare provider before starting a physical activity program.
Additionally, factors such as stress can cause hormonal changes in your body that might, in turn, make an episode more likely to occur.
9. AFib is commonly treated with ...
Medication and catheter ablation
Most people with AFib require a combination of medications that they must take daily.
Blood thinners, which are also called anticoagulants, make the blood less sticky. That reduces the risk of having a stroke (when a blood clot travels to the brain). Anticoagulants include over-the-counter aspirin, as well as prescription medications. Other medications to help treat AFib can include antiarrhythmic drugs, which are intended to help regulate heart rhythm.
Some people with AFib may be treated with catheter ablation, a minimally invasive procedure during which a catheter is inserted through a vein and then navigated up to the heart. Controlled therapy is applied to targeted areas in the heart to address abnormal electrical signals.
The current recommendation is to start most patients with medication, but for certain patients, medication will not be effective and ablation could be another strategy because of its success rate.
10. What type of doctor treats AFib?
Cardiologist, electrophysiologist (EP) and primary care physician
Your primary care doctor may be the one who diagnoses AFib—perhaps during a regular physical, or maybe during an appointment you’ve made after noticing signs of AFib like a fluttering heartbeat or fatigue. Once you’ve been diagnosed, though, your doctor will refer you to a cardiologist, a doctor who specializes in heart disease, or an electrophysiologist, a doctor who specializes in arrhythmias.
“A cardiologist will put you on pharmacological treatment, such as blood thinners or a drug to slow down the heart and control the rhythm,” says Dr. Abdelaal. “If he or she isn’t able to control the rhythm through medication they’ll refer you to an EP for an interventional procedure, such as catheter ablation.”
Learn more about catheter ablation, including safety information.