Dr. Mark Alberts want you to know – managing AFib reduces stroke risk


Is there a link between atrial fibrillation and stroke?

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is a condition that causes an irregular heartbeat. Often the condition has no symptoms, but sometimes patients experience heart palpitations. These can last a few seconds or can be more chronic, lasting longer and with increased frequency. When AFib is left untreated, blood flow in the top part of the heart slows down. Sometimes, the slow blood forms a clot that can leave the heart and travel throughout the body. When one of these clots reaches the brain, it can block a blood vessel and cause a stroke. The size and severity of the stroke depends on the size and location of the blocked brain vessel, but people with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke than those without it.

If you have AFib, what can be done to reduce the risk of stroke?

Every week, I see at least one or two patients in the hospital who've had a devastating or life-changing stroke that can be linked directly to inadequate treatment of AFib. This is frustrating to me. If you've been diagnosed with AFib, talk to your physician and follow a treatment plan for your condition. There are several exciting new treatment options available to reduce the risk of having a stroke that's linked to AFib. For instance, we have an array of new anticoagulants we can use to prevent clot formation in patients with AFib.

What are the risk factors for AFib?

There are several, such as age – the older you are, the greater your chances of having AFib – but other factors include heart disease; high blood pressure, especially if it's uncontrolled; chronic conditions such as sleep apnea, diabetes, kidney disease, and thyroid problems; binge and heavy alcohol consumption; obesity; and family history. If you think you might have AFib, contact your primary care physician. Your doctor will ask you questions about your health and perform a physical exam to determine your stroke risk. There may also be a need to have an ultrasound of your heart, known as an echocardiogram, to help identify if you have valvular heart disease. Also, you may be referred to a cardiologist for further evaluation and treatment. Of course, if you suspect you're having a stroke – whether related to AFib or otherwise – call 911 immediately. UT Southwestern is a Joint Commission-certified Advanced Comprehensive Stroke Center.