Women and Atrial Fibrillation (AF)

by Phaedra McDonough

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common electrical abnormality of the heart for both women and men. During atrial fibrillation the two upper chambers of your heart, called atria, are quivering instead of pumping and your heart rate becomes irregular.

AF Complications

Your heart works less efficiently while in atrial fibrillation. A serious complication of atrial fibrillation is a stroke, with women at significantly higher risk than men. Strokes from atrial fibrillation are related to the pooling of blood in the heart. If these pools form clots they risk being pumped out of the heart and into the brain.

Women are also less tolerant of this abnormal heart rhythm than men are and tend to exhibit more symptoms of AF: fatigue, weakness, palpitations, irregular heart rate, chest discomfort, dizziness or fainting and shortness of breath. Atrial fibrillation can come and go or become permanent. And women often have no idea they are in atrial fibrillation until it is diagnosed during a medical visit or after a stroke.

Phaedra McDonoughAF Risk Factors

Your risk of developing atrial fibrillation correlates to:

  • high blood pressure
  • heart valve disease
  • obesity
  • excessive alcohol use (more than 2 drinks a day for women)
  • sleep apnea,
  • age (post-menopause)
  • previous heart attack
  • smoking
  • congestive heart failure
  • diabetes
  • family history.

The more you can control or eliminate risk factors the less likely you will develop atrial fibrillation. Also the earlier you start treatment the easier it is to treat and the slower it will progress.

Treatment for AF

Treatment of atrial fibrillation includes many different approaches. Much depends on how the abnormal rhythm is affecting your quality of life. Some people tolerate atrial fibrillation with medications that control their heart rate.

If, despite heart control, you cannot tolerate atrial fibrillation, your provider may prescribe medications called antiarrhythmics in an attempt to convert your heart back to normal rhythm. Other options include electrical cardioversion and/or ablations. Occasionally, despite the above mentioned approaches your atrial fibrillation cannot be adequately controlled and you may require a pacemaker. Stroke risk is reduced by placing individuals on anticoagulants such as aspirin, warfarin, or one of the newer blood thinning agents.

Atrial fibrillation is a common form of heart disease that your health care provider can readily diagnose and treat. If you don’t miss the signs, you can start treatment early.

If you have signs of a stroke go the emergency room immediately. Treatment within the first three hours after onset of symptoms is critical to limiting the amount of brain cell death or damage. Signs of a stroke include: sudden confusion or trouble speaking, sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg (especially if one sided), sudden trouble seeing, sudden difficulty with walking or dizziness, sudden severe headache of no known cause.

Phaedra McDonough is a Nurse Practitioner with The Center for Cardiovascular Health at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Her office number is 802-275-3699.