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May 25, 2011

Is Atrial Fibrillation Life-threatening in Women?

Cardiovascular risk is greatest within a month of the first AF event.

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is the most common type of arrhythmia, or abnormal heart rhythm, occurring in over 2 million adults in the United States. This condition occurs when electrical signals in the body cause the heart to beat rapidly and irregularly, preventing blood from flowing properly through the heart chambers and increasing risk for stroke. There are different types of AF, some of which are temporary and stop on their own, while some are permanent and only stop with treatment. Those with AF often experience chest pain, although many with AF do not experience symptoms at all.

Atrial Fibrillation is most common in people who have heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions or those who have experienced heart attacks. While AF increases risk for stroke and heart failure, there are many effective treatments that can help patients with this condition live normal and active lives. However, as AF is most often accompanied by heart disease or cardiovascular conditions, risk of complications are increased in patients with confounding risk factors.

But how risky is AF in otherwise healthy patients? Researchers explored this question, studying risk of death and cardiovascular events, such as stroke and heart attack, in healthy women that develop this condition. What they found is that even among healthy women without heart disease or other cardiovascular conditions, new-onset AF significantly increases risk of death. However, women were found to have highest risk of death following a nonfatal cardiovascular event and/or within 30 days of the first AF event.

So what does this mean? There is much room to improve outcomes for otherwise healthy women with AF. If most deaths in women with AF occur after a nonfatal cardiovascular event or within 30 days of the first AF event, doctors now know that these patients should be closely managed during these periods to prevent adverse outcomes. Through proper medication and other forms of treatment, women have a better chance of making it through these riskier stages, managing their AF and ultimately living full, healthy lives.  

Questions for You to Consider

  • Who is at highest risk for AF?

  • Adults with heart disease, cardiovascular conditions or history of heart attack are at greatest risk for AF. Other common risk factors include obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, lung disease and metabolic syndrome. Risk for AF also increases with age.

  • How can I prevent AF?

  • The prevention of AF is similar to the prevention of heart disease. By maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and following a heart healthy diet you can significantly lower risk for AF. You can also help reduce risk by managing any risk factors for heart disease you may have, such as blood pressure and cholesterol, limiting alcohol intake and quitting smoking if you’re a smoker.

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