When the Heart’s Aflutter, Make Healthy Choices to Help Prevent Stroke

The singers may croon that their hearts are all “aflutter” but in real life, a fluttering heart can be a scary problem.

Called atrial fibrillation (A-fib), it can feel like your heart is flip-flopping, beating fast, or skipping beats. A-fib is the most common arrhythmia, which is when the heart can beat too slow, too fast or with an irregular rhythm. You may feel extra heartbeats, skipped heartbeats, or a racing heartbeat; however, not all extra beats are A-fib. On the other hand, some people who have A-fib may not feel symptoms at all. But in some people, A-fib can cause chest pain or heart failure, especially if the heart rhythm is very quick. A-fib may occur infrequently, or it may become an ongoing or long-term heart problem.
With a healthy heart, electrical signals travel through the heart to make it beat regularly. But when there is A-fib, the signals can’t do their job as well, which doesn’t allow the heart to beat normally. Often, the damage that causes A-fib usually happens because of other health conditions. For example, high blood pressure can damage the heart and upset the electrical signals. So can other conditions, like coronary artery disease , valvular heart disease, and excessive use of alcohol or sleep apnea.

Because A-fib raises the risk for stroke , it is a serious concern. Sometimes even a lean, healthy, physically active person can have a stroke, out of nowhere. The reason can be A-fib. When the heart doesn’t beat normally, blood stays inside the heart’s chambers for too long. This can cause a blood clot to form. Then it can travel to an artery in the brain and get stuck there, causing a stroke. People with A-fib may have a five times higher risk of stroke than people without A-fib.

But there’s good news. A study in the journal Circulation found that more than half of A-fib cases could be explained by a risk factor that can be prevented. Many doctors use a two-step approach to treating A-fib: find and fix changeable risk factors, and then prevent blood clots from forming by treating patients with anticoagulants.

Consider these healthy lifestyle recommendations from the The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to help prevent A-fib:

  • Don’t smoke .
  • Keep a healthy weight .
  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet . Limit saturated and trans fat and cholesterol. Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
  • Limit or avoid caffeine and alcohol.

What do all the above steps have in common? They all promote healthy blood pressure. This is important because high blood pressure is the biggest risk factor for A-fib. You can also reduce your stroke risk by keeping your arteries healthy by managing your cholesterol. A buildup of fatty plaque inside arteries—atherosclerosis—narrows arteries, making it easier for a clot to block blood flow. Diabetes causes atherosclerosis, so control your blood glucose if you have diabetes. Also, be sure to take all your medicines as prescribed, and let your doctor know if you have any heart symptoms or concerns about your medicines. If you take a blood thinner, you may need to have your blood checked regularly.

Have a heart! If you’re concerned about yourself or someone else, encourage them to see the doctor!

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