Why do people develop AFib?
When it comes to causes and triggers, atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a tricky disease to pin down. While there are certainly common risk factors, they run the gamut from genetics to alcohol consumption. Sometimes, the cause is unknown altogether.
While it's not always easy to trace where it came from, it's always important to get screened and see your provider if you're experiencing symptoms. In this article, we'll go through all the risk factors and symptoms so you can be prepared.
What is AFib?
AFib is the name for what happens when the top two chambers of the heart (atria) and the lower two chambers (ventricles) are out of sync. Though an AFib "attack" can feel scary, it doesn't actually have harmful consequences. The danger in AFib comes with the increased risk of stroke.
How AFib Can Cause Strokes and Heart Failure
When the blood is not being pumped properly through the heart, it can pool in the lower chambers and create clots, which can then be pumped through arteries and block blood flow to the brain, causing a stroke.
AFib can also cause heart failure because the heart is beating so fast it can't properly fill up with blood, making it inefficient at getting blood to the rest of the body. That means blood can back up in the pulmonary veins (which take oxygen-rich blood to the heart from the lungs) and cause fluid to back up in the lungs.
Risk Factors for AFib
Now that we know how AFib can trigger additional, life-threatening illness, it's important to understand the risk factors. Though studies have not yet discovered a singular cause of AFib, there are lifestyle qualities and characteristics that many people with AFib have in common.
People of any age can develop AFib — including children (though it is not common). The American Heart Association lists these risk factors for developing AFib (but keep in mind some people develop AFib from unknown causes):
- Age - The number of people with AFib significantly increases in older adults.
- High Blood Pressure - Long standing high blood pressure, particularly uncontrolled, can significantly increase your risk of AFib.
- Heavy Alcohol Consumption - Binge drinking (five drinks in two hours for men; four drinks in two hours for women) increases your risk for AFib.
- Heart Disease (Note: AFib is the most common complication after heart surgery)
- Sleep Apnea - Though sleep apnea has not been proven to cause AFib, studies have shown a strong link between people with sleep apnea and AFib. In fact, the American Heart Association says that treating sleep apnea in these cases often helps with AFib symptoms.
- Family History - Having a family member with AFib increases your odds of diagnosis.
- Athletes - Many athletes experience AFib, which can be triggered by a rapid heart rate called supraventricular tachycardia (SVT).
- Chronic conditions like thyroid issues, diabetes or asthma
AFib "Attack" Triggers
While these factors don't necessarily cause a diagnosis of AFib, they can trigger an AFib "attack," which isn't in itself harmful but can feel unnerving. (Learn more about what an AFib attack feels like here.) Mitigating these factors in your life can help you avoid experiencing AFib symptoms or even much of your day-to-day without any symptoms.
- Alcohol consumption
- Lack of sleep
- Coffee consumption (Note: coffee's caffeine content as well as its diuretic quality—its tendency to dehydrate—makes it a significant trigger for many people with AFib)
Drinking plenty of water, getting plenty of rest, and limiting caffeine and alcohol can make a world of difference if you're living with AFib.
If you think you're experiencing AFib symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
If you are aged 50 and above, it's recommended to get screened annually even if you have not experienced symptoms, as many people live with AFib without knowing it.
AFib symptoms include:
- Heart "skipping a beat"
- "Fluttering" sensation in your chest
- Acute chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness and fatigue
The Bottom Line
Though studies have not shown one definitive cause of AFib, there are many risk factors to be aware of, including age, alcohol consumption and other chronic diseases. However, there are many cases of young, healthy people developing AFib, so it's important to get screened if you think you're experiencing symptoms. Additionally, many people also experience AFib without noticeable symptoms, so if you're aged 50+ it's important to get screened annually.
If you'd like to know where your health stands with regard to heart arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation, Life Line Screening offers a simple, non-invasive test and lab-accurate results. Using an EKG monitor, a trained technician will read your heart signal for about 15 minutes and review your results with you right after the screening.
Scheduling an appointment is easy, with convenient locations all across the United States. Click below to find the Life Line Screening location closest to you.
This article has been reviewed by the Life Line Screening clinical team. You can learn more about this team of experts HERE.