Nearly one in 12 Americans over 80 has the most common form of heart arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation. That means the atria of the heart, the two upper chambers, are beating out of sync with the lower chambers, or ventricles. Normally, the contractions in the atria push blood into the ventricles, which then contract themselves, sending blood circulating through the body. In people with atrial fibrillation, the atria try to pump blood into the ventricles, but the ventricles aren’t ready, and so the blood pools in the atria. This increases the risk of stroke or heart failure.
There aren’t always symptoms of atrial fibrillation, but some people experience heart palpitations, a severe drop in blood pressure, chest pains, shortness of breath, lightheadedness and confusion, or weakness. Risk increases with age, and obese people, people with a family history of heart arrhythmia, and people with high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid problems, sleep apnea, or type 2 diabetes are at heightened risk at every age. Alcohol consumption is another risk factor, often triggering incidents of paroxysmal fibrillation; binge drinking can make someone prone to fibrillation Perhaps surprisingly, oral hygiene is linked to lowered incidents of cardiac events, including atrial fibrillation and other arrhythmias.
That’s why it’s important to control those risk factors you can. You can’t make yourself younger or change your family history, but you can:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Drink only in moderation, if at all.
- Get treatment for sleep apnea, if you have it.
- Make sure, if you have type 2 diabetes, that it’s being properly treated.
- Brush your teeth and get regular dental checkups.
- Keep your blood pressure under control.
Atrial fibrillation is treated by resetting the heart’s rhythm to get it back on the beat. The electrical paddles that are part of the common idea of heart disease treatment are one way of doing this; a patient under sedation is shocked to momentarily stop the heart, the cardiac version of shutting it down and turning it back on. Less dramatically, oral or intravenous medication can be used to get the heart in the right rhythm.