Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common heart rhythm disorder, occurring in about 0.5 - 1per cent of the population. This risk increases with age and it is projected that people over the age of 40 have a one in four chance of developing AF.
Other risk factors for AF include:
- high blood pressure
- heart failure and heart disease
- high cholesterol
AF may be present with symptoms such as palpitations (an awareness of the heart beating), shortness of breath, easy fatigability, light-headedness or fainting. It can also be present without any symptoms. AF may be diagnosed from a recording of your heart's electrical activity called an electrocardiogram (ECG) and after a doctor has conducted a thorough medical examination.
Why is atrial fibrillation a stroke risk factor?
The irregular heart rhythm in AF causes poor pumping of blood out of the upper chambers of the heart. This leads to a pooling of the blood within these chambers, making it easier for blood clots to form.
These clots can break off, travel in the bloodstream and obstruct blood flow to the brain, thereby limiting the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the brain, causing a stroke. Most strokes caused by AF are severe in nature.
Reducing the risk of atrial fibrillation-related stroke
AF patients have a three- to four-fold higher risk of having a stroke but this risk can be reduced with medications that thin the blood and prevent the formation of blood clots in the heart.
Reducing stroke risk in AF patients is an individualised process. The doctor will consider the patient’s risk profile and suitability for medications before advising on treatment. Stroke risk can further be reduced by controlling high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Regular exercise, a healthy diet, maintaining an optimal weight and not smoking can also lower an AF patient’s risk of having a stroke.
Although stroke risk can be reduced in a patient with AF, the risk is never completely eliminated. It is therefore important for these patients and their caregivers to be aware of the symptoms of a stroke so that treatment that can save brain cells is provided in the critical first few hours. Timely intervention can lower the risk of permanent disability.
The common stroke symptoms are drooping of one side of the face, weakness of an arm and/ or leg and difficulty speaking. You can easily remember these using the acronym FAST which stands for F- face, A- arm, S- speech, T- time. If you experience any of these symptoms, please call 995 immediately and go to the Emergency Department at once.