Atrial Fibrillation and Older Adults

heart with EKG

By Alison Wood, Contributing Writer

As we age, several medical issues can become more common. Atrial fibrillation is one of these health concerns and is a type of heart arrhythmia. It is the most common arrhythmia in seniors, as age is a key contributing factor to its development.

Here are some of the things to be aware of if you or a loved one is concerned about or has been diagnosed with this atrial fibrillation.

The symptoms of atrial fibrillation

An arrhythmia causes issues with the speed or rhythm of the heart. It’s possible to have atrial fibrillation without being aware of it. However, some people might experience the following symptoms:

  • Heart palpitations or chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling faint or lightheaded
  • Weakness or difficulty exercising
  • Fatigue or confusion

A heart arrhythmia can lead to low blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, or heart failure. So, if you are experiencing any unusual symptoms, it’s important to get them checked out with a medical practitioner as soon as possible.

Atrial fibrillation is common in people with other heart conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, and pericarditis. Other medical conditions such as asthma, type 2 diabetes, and COPD can also be risk factors. But not everyone who is diagnosed with atrial fibrillation will have any of these medical conditions. Sometimes age is the main or only risk factor.

It’s also important to note that, because some people don’t get any symptoms, atrial fibrillation might be diagnosed during other routine tests. If this is the case for you, then you can walk through the treatment options with your doctor.

How is atrial fibrillation diagnosed?

Atrial fibrillation is diagnosed by looking at your family and medical history, a physical examination, and a test called an electrocardiogram (EKG). An EKG is a non-invasive test that looks at the electrical activity and rhythm of the heart.

During an episode of atrial fibrillation, you will have an irregular and fast heartbeat, usually recorded at more than 100 beats per minute. However, these episodes are hard to predict and  might not show up on a standard EKG. You might therefore be asked to wear a portable EKG device for up to 24 hours a day. This is so doctors can get a more sustained reading of your heart and the atrial fibrillation might show up during this period, helping with diagnosis.

Treatment of atrial fibrillation

If atrial fibrillation is diagnosed, there are several treatments available, depending on the person’s age and whether they have any other medical conditions.

The following might be considered:

  • Medicine to control atrial fibrillation — these are known as antiarrhythmics.
  • Medicine to reduce the person’s risk of stroke — these are often blood thinners to help prevent clots.
  • Cardioversion — this is a procedure used to restore a normal heart rhythm and takes the form of external electrical shocks.
  • Catheter ablation — this is a procedure to insert a catheter into the heart to diagnose where the arrhythmia originates.
  • Maze surgery — is a treatment to create new pathways for electrical energy to travel through the heart.
  • Pacemaker — this is sometimes used if your heart switches between beating too quickly and too slowly.

All these options will need to be discussed with your doctor, and they will advise the best course of action when considering all factors.

What happens if atrial fibrillation is left untreated?

The two biggest risks that occur when atrial fibrillation is not treated are stroke and heart failure.

When the heart pumps inefficiently, there is a risk of clots forming. These blood clots can then be circulated to the brain where they block arteries and cause a stroke.

If atrial fibrillation is persistent, this can cause a weakening of the heart and ultimately heart failure, where blood is no longer able to be pumped around the body efficiently.

That’s why it’s important to raise any symptoms with your doctor and to attend any routine medical screenings to ensure that sometimes silent issues like atrial fibrillation can be picked up as early as possible.

This information is courtesy of MedlinePlus. Visit their website for further information on atrial fibrillation and its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

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