Approximately 1.5 million American women live with atrial fibrillation, a heart disorder commonly known as “AFib” that can lead to deadly or life-impairing stroke. For an undiagnosed woman living with AFib, knowing symptoms and risk factors can help mitigate this serious health threat. Women living with AFib can also take steps to manage this condition and their risk for stroke.
AFib is a heart rhythm disorder in which the atria – the two upper chambers of the heart – beat rapidly and irregularly. Women with AFib are more likely than men with AFib to have a stroke. And, after the age of 75, an overwhelming majority of people with AFib – 60 percent – are women.
Diagnosing the condition
Up to a third of women with AFib don’t feel symptoms. Others feel tired and experience heart palpitations, which may feel like a fluttering or flopping sensation in the chest or the feeling that the heart is beating too quickly. A woman experiencing AFib may also feel dizzy or short of breath. Some feel chest pain or feel faint.
Certain health and lifestyle risk factors make women more susceptible to AFib. Along with age and an existing heart condition, high blood pressure and obesity are major risk factors. Women who drink more than 10 ounces of alcohol a day are also at risk. Other risk factors include diabetes, overactive thyroid, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, lung disease, smoking, caffeine and stress.
With or without elevated risk factors, a woman experiencing symptoms should schedule a consultation with a doctor to determine if these symptoms are caused by AFib.
Living with AFib
Women living with AFib can manage their condition and associated risk for stroke by adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors. Increasing physical activity, adopting a diet that is low in fat, sodium and cholesterol, avoiding alcohol, and moderating stress and blood pressure levels are all necessary to manage AFib and avoid more serious health problems. AFib patients should choose caffeine-free coffee and herbal tea over caffeinated drinks. Moderate exercise such as walking, biking, swimming, yoga and strength training, combined with good hydration, can significantly improve AFib symptoms and reduce stroke risk.
Isolation is a common feeling for women living with AFib. Resources such as WomenHeart’s new Virtual Support Network can help address the need for education and emotional and psychosocial support for women living with AFib. The Network is free and open to all women living with AFib and their caregivers.
Learn more about WomenHeart’s free patient support services for women living with heart disease, including AFib, and register to receive free online heart health information at www.womenheart.org.