Heart disease deaths have halved in the last 30 years. And whilst that’s incredibly good news – experts are now predicting a huge three-fold increase in the irregular heart beat condition atrial fibrillation .
I’ve been writing about the AF time bomb effect in today’s Daily Mail Good Health section http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2228350/Could-dodgy-ticker-realise-How-DIY-test-irregular-pulse-help-save-life.html?ito=feeds-newsxml .
Up to a million Britons are estimated to have AF (caused by an electrical fault in the heart) and this is predicted to increase to three million by 2050 as the populations ages.Some cardiologists are even saying it is the new epidemic in cardiac health.
Why should we care? Well having atrial fibrillation is dangerous because it increases the risk of stroke by five times. This happens because blood can pool in the heart and create clots, which may travel to other parts of the body including the brain and block an artery.
Weirdly though – few people seem to have even heard of AF and even some of those who have been diagnosed – don’t realise it puts them at risk of stroke. There’s still this idea that it isn’t really that serious if your heart skips a beat or is generally all over the place. Patients I’ve interviewed have variously been told they’ve been drinking too much coffee or suffering from stress – and in some cases misdiagnosed with epilepsy – and often take years to get an AF diagnosis . Some elderly people suffer blackouts and falls because they have undiagnosed AF. The average delay in diagnosis is two and a half years.
Too often patients are not diagnosed with AF until they have suffered a stroke – an event that might be have been prevented if their AF had been diagnosed and treated earlier. The Atrial Fibrillation Association says 8,000 strokes and 6,000 deaths a year could be prevented if AF cases were better controlled.
Treatments are changing
This is now about to change: last week the European Society of Cardiology called for anyone with an irregular heartbeat to see a doctor, explaining that in some cases treatment with blood thinning drugs can reduce the risk of stroke by 70 per cent. Unfortunately at the moment only 18 per cent of patients with atrial fibrillation are thought to be on anticoagulant drugs. This is mainly because many AF patients are undiagnosed, but also because one of the main treatments – a drug called warfarin has side effects, interacts with specific foods and drinks and needs monitoring visits via a hospital clinic. However there are newer drugs – Pradaxa and Rivaroxaban – the first for stroke prevention in almost 60 years which are easier to take and do not require monitoring and now approved by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.
If you’re wondering what the symptoms are – the answer is they vary – but can include a feeling that your heart has skipped a beat, followed by a racing of the heart, an erratic heartbeat, strong palpitations or a fluttering feeling in your chest like butterflies or a ‘ flopping fish’ sensation. Other patients experience chest and throat pressure that mimic a heart attack or a heavy ache in the top of the left arm. In the elderly sometimes the only symptoms are breathlessness and feeling tired.
Why it’s worth checking your pulse
Taking your pulse is an easy way to check your heart beat – an irregular heart beat doesn’t always mean you have AF though – that can only be confirmed by an electrocardiogram – but it can be a sign that you have a heart rhythm problem. If you want more information on how to check your pulse go to knowyourpulse.org.
- You can watch a video of how to take your pulse here November 6 2012
- The Atrial Fibrillation Association even have a free i-Phone app you can download at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/know-your-pulse/id378550043?mt=8. It could just save your life.
- Here’s an another article I’ve written about AF http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1292321/Andy-told-heart-flutters-caused-coffee–If-simple.html
PS : This very non PC video of Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren pretty much sums up AF – enjoy …. (thanks Dr Trish for the inspiration)