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Atrial fibrillation – risk is often underestimated

Atrial fibrillation has in the meantime become something of an epidemic – and a dangerous one at that. Around 1.8 million people in Germany are affected. Atrial fibrillation is a particular type of abnormal heart rhythm in which the heart beats too rapidly and also irregularly. The two upper chambers of the heart (atria) beat out of synch with the two lower chambers (ventricles), and the heart valves open and close incompletely and not in coordination with each other. As a result, the heart can no longer pump effectively, and it loses 20 to 30 percent of its performance capacity. What makes this condition particularly dangerous is that it can cause small blood clots to form, which can then come loose and cause a stroke or embolism. 

Generally speaking, the symptoms for all forms of abnormal heart rhythm are similar. The person experiences anxiety, sweating, heart palpitations, shortness of breath or fatigue.  In most cases, however, no symptoms at all occur at first. Often, atrial fibrillation and the increased risk it entails remain undetected for too long, because the irregularities sometimes occur for only minutes at a time and are not detected in a normal EKG. It is therefore better to carry out a long-term, ambulatory EKG, in which the patient is equipped with a portable monitor. People should have themselves tested more thoroughly at the latest from the age of 50, because the risk of abnormal heart rhythms increases significantly with age. From the age of 50, it is about twice as high.

Once diagnosed, it is important to determine the cause for the dysrhythmia, because this is the only way to select an effective treatment. The condition is often triggered by pathological changes in the heart, such as valvular defects, heart attack, vascular calcifications or inflammation of the heart muscle. But the thyroid may also be to blame.

Depending on the cause, abnormal heart rhythms may be treated through surgery or by installing a pacemaker. And lifestyle is also an influencing factor. In most cases, patients receive blood-thinning medication, which prevents the formation of a clot and thus offers effective protection against stroke or heart attack.

In recent years, various advanced anticoagulation medications have become available for treating atrial fibrillation. Although these have proven very effective and safe in clinical trials, they are repeatedly a topic of debate. It is negligent when patients who go on these medications simply stop taking their prescribed blood-thinning drugs. They then risk having a stroke, and are therefore putting their lives at stake. Anyone who is unsure of which medication to take or who is experiencing symptoms should urgently consult their cardiologist.


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