The signs of atrial fibrillation (AFib) may seem like they wouldn’t be hard to miss, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, nearly a quarter of people with AFib don’t experience the heart palpitations, chest pain or shortness of breath traditionally associated with the heart disease.
They have asymptomatic, or “silent” AFib.
A leading cause of stroke, AFib can be even more dangerous when asymptomatic because people don’t know they need to seek treatment. September is Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month, and it’s an important time for older adults to become more informed about silent AFib and why they should be screened.
Silent AFib and stroke risk
A stroke occurs when a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain is blocked or ruptures. The most common heart arrhythmia, AFib accounts for one in three strokes.
The reason AFib is such a potent risk factor is because it causes a rapid heartbeat that allows blood to pool in the heart. This pooled blood can potentially form into a clot that travels through the circulatory system until it lands in one of the brain’s arteries and interrupts blood flow to the brain, resulting in a stroke.
While AFib can be treated with medical interventions, silent AFib can go undetected and gradually increase your stroke risk. About 10 percent of strokes are caused by AFib that is first detected at the time of stroke, according to the medical journal Circulation.
The importance of screenings
In many cases, you can discover AFib and reduce your stroke risk through a simple screening performed by your doctor. Experts from the American Heart Association said screening for silent AFib among adults 65 and older could prevent thousands of strokes worldwide each year. Research has shown screenings have detected undiagnosed AFib in 1 to 3 percent of people in this age group.
AFib screenings can be completed by your doctor through a pulse check, blood pressure monitor or ECG (electrocardiogram) device. With just a simple test, you can often find out if you have AFib and make the appropriate medical and lifestyle changes. It is important to recognize, however, that some cases of AFib can be both asymptomatic and intermittent, so longer monitoring periods may be required to identify the arrhythmia.
Heart-healthy tips to reduce stroke risk
In addition to being screened, the American Heart Association outlines several heart-healthy guidelines you can follow to both lower your chance of stroke and increase your quality of life.
An important step is to maintain a healthy weight by eating heart-healthy foods and exercising regularly. A healthy diet will help you avoid obesity and high cholesterol – two major risk factors for stroke. Make sure to eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein while avoiding most saturated fats, simple sugars and processed foods. A heart-healthy diet should be supplemented with regular physical activity several times a week.
One of the most important factors in lowering stroke risk is to quit smoking if you do so. According to the National Stroke Association, smoking can double the risk of stroke compared to non-smokers.
A comprehensive heart-health plan is key because the factors that increase stroke risk are often interrelateed. The first step of your plan should always be screening for potential risk factors like silent AFib. By understanding the full picture of your health, you will be able to take the right steps on the path to wellness.
Dr. Anthony Magnano is a Ponte Vedra resident and cardiac electrophysiologist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center Riverside. For more information on Dr. Magnano and his specialty treating Atrial fibrillation, visit AfibJax.com.