trial fibrillation is a very common condition amongst Canadians. It’s a heart rhythm disturbance that affects approximately 1 in 100 people in this country. It’s easily treated using a variety of methods including medication. Left untreated, the risk of stroke is three to five times greater and increases with age.

Atrial fibrillation (also called Afib) involves an irregular heartbeat in the top two chambers of the heart, called the atria. Dr. Paul Dorian, a cardiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital and the Director of the Division of Cardiology, University of Toronto, explains: “The most common type of heart issues people know about are plumbing problems, like hardening of the arteries. Afib is not a plumbing problem. It’s an electrical one.”

The symptoms vary from person to person, but common ones are palpitations (an awareness of heartbeat), lightheadedness, weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath, chest discomfort, and a general lack of energy.

While most people live-symptom free, 4 percent will have a stroke within 12 months if left untreated.

“Some people have this condition and are completely, blissfully unaware of it,” says Dr. Dorian. “Some people have this heart rhythm irregularity every single day. Others have it intermittently, meaning for minutes, hours or days at a time — even once a week, a month, or a year. There’s no specific pattern.”

Who’s at risk for Afib

The cause of Afib is not known, but it is related to age and is more common in individuals over the age of 65. It can happen to those in their 40s or 50s, but is very rare. An estimated 5 to 10 percent of men and women over the age of 80 already have the condition. It tends to occur in people with high blood pressure, which is the most common correlation factor. Other risk factors include obesity, excessive alcohol intake, congenital heart disease, an overactive thyroid, and an abnormal heart structure.

These risk factors underscore the importance of regular checkups where pulse, blood pressure and heartbeat are checked, which may be the first warning signs of Afib. A diagnosis can be made through further tests like an electrocardiogram or via a Holter monitor, a wearable device that records heart activity over a 24-hour period or longer.
Afib is a condition that should not be ignored. While most people live-symptom free, 4 percent will have a stroke within 12 months if left untreated. For others, it means feeling unwell, which interferes with quality of life.

Current options for treatment

Fortunately, a number of treatment options are available. To prevent the formation of blood clots in the collecting chambers of the heart, a clot preventing agent or blood thinner may be prescribed.

“In the past seven or eight years, there’s been a whole variety of new drugs introduced,” says Dr. Dorian. “Doctors call them NOACs, which stands for Novel Oral Anti Coagulants.” These are comparable to existing treatments for preventing stroke but differ in their mode of intake and side effects.

Some patients may need different therapies like antiarrhythmic drugs, which reduce the frequency and duration of Afib incidents. Another option is to undergo a procedure called ablation, which is the application of a controlled electric shock to the heart in hopes of restoring it to its natural rhythm.

Dr. Dorian adds: “One of the things that doctors like myself do is help educate our colleagues on how to use these newer drugs most effectively and most wisely.”

The other component of education is reaching out to Canadians to boost their awareness of atrial fibrillation and to encourage them to talk to their physicians about their risk. It’s just one way we can assure a healthy heart for life.