Changing your lifestyle is key to managing or preventing this serious condition

New research in recent months has made clear that lifestyle changes can help you prevent and manage an increasingly common heart problem that could raise your risk for stroke by up to five times.

About 2% of Americans under age 65 and 9% over that age have a type of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Known as atrial fibrillation or Afib, the condition means that the top chambers of your heart are beating fast and irregularly so blood flow is affected.  The likelihood of this increases with increasing age and the number of affected individuals will increase as the U.S. population gets older. It contributes to 130,000 deaths each year.

Traditional factors that could increase your risk for Afib include obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and presence of underlying heart disease.

Now, one new study suggests that you can reduce your risk for Afib episodes by cutting your drinking of alcohol. The research published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the rate of Afib episodes dropped significantly in people who stopped drinking.

Dr. Arshad Jahangir, a cardiovascular specialist and medical director of the Center for Advanced Atrial Fibrillation therapies based at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI, says that while the study involved limited number of patients, it’s pretty clear that cutting alcohol can help with Afib.

After all, Afib risks increase for people who are obese, suffer from sleep or high blood pressure, and alcohol use can cause those underlying problems and directly affect heart muscle.

Dr. Jahangir says that this study may cause some confusion because previous research has suggested moderate alcohol use can reduce coronary artery disease risks, yet the results of this study for atrial fibrillation are quite strong.

“Reducing alcohol use seems to help reduce the risk for Afib, even if there are some drawbacks to this study,” Dr. Jahangir says.

And another new study published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology links Afib risks to stress and exhaustion that’s now popularly known as burnout.

Dr. Jahangir says that stress has long been linked to heart disease risk, but this study raises the potential that burnout can affect your heart rhythm, too.

The key point of both studies is that healthy lifestyle changes can help you prevent or manage Afib.

“You can make a change and help yourself,” says Cheryl Ceretto, a registered nurse who coordinates the Aurora Atrial Fibrillation Centers. “Treatments and medications work far better if you are also changing your lifestyle for the better.”

Dr. Jahangir says if you do feel symptoms of Afib, you should talk to a doctor. Some key symptoms are:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Irregular and fast pulse
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Easily fatigued

“Don’t ignore these warning symptoms,” Dr. Jahangir says.

If feelings of these symptoms come and go quickly, Dr. Jahangir says you should tell your doctor. If you are feeling sudden chest pain, shortness of breath or dizziness that lasts for more than 10 minutes, you should seek immediate help, he says.

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