Is this common heart condition the next cardiac epidemic?

Don't miss a beat: Can you spot signs of atrial fibrillation?

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If not recognised and correctly reated atrial fibrillation can result in significant problems, including stroke and heart failure. Photo: Shutterstock

If not recognised and correctly reated atrial fibrillation can result in significant problems, including stroke and heart failure. Photo: Shutterstock

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A quarter of all Australians will experience atrial fibrillation in their lifetime. So why are we ignoring it?

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It's said to kill three times as many people as car accidents in the western world and affects a quarter of all Australians at some time in their life.

And yet not enough people are aware of the risks of atrial fibrillation, according to leading Tasmanian heart surgeon Dr Warrick Bishop who says it's too easy to bury your head in the sand when it comes to this life-threatening condition.

"An ageing population and our western lifestyle are ensuring that the prevalence of atrial fibrillation is increasing at such a rate that it is predicted to be the next cardiac epidemic," said Dr Bishop.

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a common disturbance of the electrical system of the heart. It is one of a number of disorders commonly refered to as 'arrhythmias' or 'dysrhythmias' in which the heart beats with an abonormal rhythm.

Sudden cardiac death (SCD) and arrhythmia account for 15-20 per cent of all deaths worldwide and in Australia, 40 people die of a heart rhythm problem every day.

If not recognised and correctly reated AF can result in significant problems, including stroke and heart failure. It affects around 15 per cent of people aged 80 and over.

As people around the globe mark World Heart Rhythm Week, from June 3 to 9, Dr Bishop said it's a good time to start talking about AF.

"AF is a condition of the heart that we are seeing more as the population ages. The condition is characterised as a loss of the electrical and mechanical synchrony of the top part of the heart, resulting in a fast heartbeat and its decreased efficiency as a pump," said Dr Bishop.

He said patients describe palpitations in the chest, shortness of breath, a decrease in exercise capacity and light-headedness.

"Although age is the single most powerful association, high blood pressure, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, diabetes, renal disease and other heart problems can all be associated with AF."

He said treatment is generally focused on two things: "The first is to relieve the symptoms and improve the function of the heart by restoring it back to normal rhythm.

"The other component of treatment is based on the understanding that while the atrial chambers are not contracting properly, blood can pool and form a clot. This clot can dislodge and move to the brain, causing a stroke.

"Therefore, it is vital to keep the blood thin to reduce this devastating risk. There are different drugs used to slow the heart and thin the blood, and there are special surgical and procedural techniques used to reduce the occurrence of the condition."

While treatment is available, Dr Bishop said prevention is the best medicine.

"Simple lifestyle measures such as regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight are obvious. It's also vital to have regular screening tests for conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes.

"Good sleep and refraining from excessive alcohol consumption will also reduce the risk of developing AF.

According to global heart health advocacy group Arrhythmia Alliance (the body behind World Heart Rhythm Week) eight out of 10 arrhythmia-related deaths could be avoided if people were more aware of their heart rhythm and not just their heart rate.

Arrythmia Alliance founder Trudie Lobban said during these unprecedented times, it is vital we all take charge of our health.

"Arrhythmias cause more deaths worldwide than cancer, affecting anyone of any age, yet we choose to ignore the most important organ in our body - our heart. Our key message this year is Don't Miss A Beat.

"We are asking people to 'listen' to your heart - is the rhythm too fast? Is it too slow? Is the rhythm irregular? That may be your heart telling you something is wrong. With the introduction of mobile EKGs apps and smartwatches, there really is no excuse why everyone should not be aware of their heart rhythm."

MORE INFORMATION

To find out how to 'Know Your Pulse' visit knowyourpulse.org

For more information on Arrhythmia Alliance and how to get involved in World Heart Rhythm Week visit www.worldheartrhythmweek.org

For more information on atrial fibrillation from the Heart Foundation click HERE

For more heart health tips from Dr Warrick Bishop visit drwarrickbishop.com

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