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November 2020

Give AF the Boot with Healthy Habits

It can feel like your heart is flip-flopping, beating fast, or skipping beats. Atrial fibrillation (AF)—or irregular heartbeat—affects more than 2 million Americans.

Because AF raises the risk for stroke, it is a big concern. Getting blood pressure, body weight, and smoking under control can help prevent AF. The Q&A below can help answer your questions about AF and how to manage your risk.

Q: What is AF?

A: Electrical signals travel through the heart and make it beat regularly. But with AF, these signals can’t do their job as well, so the heart does not beat normally. The damage that causes AF usually happens because of other health conditions. For example, uncontrolled high blood pressure can damage the heart and upset the electrical signals. So can heart valve disease, coronary artery disease, sleep apnea, or excessive alcohol.

Q: How can AF lead to stroke?

A: 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 untreated AF may have a 5 times higher risk for stroke than people without AF.

Q: How can I prevent AF?

A: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends these healthy lifestyle choices to prevent AF:

  • Get regular physical activity.

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Limit saturated and trans fats, sodium, added sugars, alcohol, and cholesterol. Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

  • Don’t smoke.

  • Keep a healthy weight.

All the above steps promote healthy blood pressure—and that’s important. High blood pressure accounts for 14% to 22% of AF cases.

Q: Do I have AF?

A: We can often feel extra heartbeats, skipped heartbeats, or a racing heartbeat, but not all extra beats are atrial fibrillation. If you think you might have atrial fibrillation, talk with your healthcare provider.

Q: How can I reduce my stroke risk if I have AF?

A: Thankfully, about 75% of AF-related strokes can be prevented. Healthcare providers often prescribe blood thinners to reduce the risk for stroke. You can also make lifestyle changes to lower your chances of having a stroke. Follow the steps outlined above for preventing AF. Also, limit or avoid caffeine and keep your arteries healthy by managing your cholesterol. Untreated high cholesterol can contribute to atherosclerosis—a buildup of fatty plaque inside arteries that makes it easier for a clot to block blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Online Medical Reviewer: Joanne Foody MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Ray Turley, BSN, MSN
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2020
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