What is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial Fibrillation Affects Over 5 Million Americans

Heart monitor
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Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a rapid, irregular heartbeat that affects more than five million Americans and becomes more common as you age.

The debilitating condition, which can make day-to-day activities difficult, can be prevented in some older people by walking or engaging in other light to moderate exercise.

How Atrial Fibrillation Occurs

While not life-threatening on its own, AF does increase the risk of experiencing major complications, such as stroke or heart attack.

The leading type of cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, AF occurs when the heart's two top chambers (the atria) contract improperly and can cause blood to back up into the heart, possibly leading to clot formation.

Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

  • The irregular heartbeat causes a myriad of symptoms, including:
  • Racing pulse
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating or feeling unable to exert oneself in exercise. But exercise, ironically, may be one of the best ways to prevent it.

A 2008 study in the journal Circulation showed a dramatic difference in AF incidence among senior citizens who maintain a light to moderate walking regimen or leisure-time activity. From more than 5,400 adults studied, AF incidence was 22 percent lower in those who walked 5 to 11 blocks per week, a risk that was lowered by 44 percent among those who walked 60 or more blocks per week (roughly 3 miles).

A 2015 survey released by the nonprofit Alliance for Aging Research found that 50 percent of respondents first learned of their AF after going to the ER (33 percent) or health care professional (17 percent) because they felt symptoms.

However, 45 percent of respondents said did not experience symptoms significant enough to report. They instead were diagnosed at a regular office visit.

Atrial Fibrillation Treatment

AF treatment aims to prevent blood clots from forming and to control heart rate within a normal range. Resources include medication, surgery or a procedure known as cardioversion, which can shock the heart back into normal rhythm with electrical impulses.

Scientists believe light exercise works as a form of preventive self-cardioversion by helping the heart maintain a normal rate.

A retrospective study of 942 people in the European Heart Journal indicates that exercise is not as effective among AF patients already experiencing heart failure symptoms. Certain people are predisposed to AF, including those who have existing heart disease, such as heart failure, previous heart attack, valve disease or recent heart surgery. Men are more likely to have AF, although women have a higher, long-term risk of complications causing premature death.


Agostoni, Piergiuseppe, Michele Emdin, Ugo Corra, Fabrizio Veglia, Damiano Magri, Calogero C. Tedesco, Emanuela Berton, Claudio Passino, Erika Bertella, Federica Re, Alessandro Mezzani, Romualdo Belardinelli, Chiara Colombo, Rocco La Gioia, Marco Vicenzi, Alberto Giannoni, Domenico Scrutinio, Pantaleo Giannuzzi, Claudio Tondo, Andrea Di Lenarda, Gianfranco Sinagra, Massimo F. Piepoli, and Marco Guazzi. "Permanent Atrial Fibrillation Affects Exercise Capacity in Chronic Heart Failure Patients." European Heart Journal 29:19(2008): 2367-72. 8 Oct. 2008 <http://eurheartj.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/29/19/2367>.
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