Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of sustained cardiac arrhythmia—or abnormal heart rhythm—in the world. It develops when the electrical signals in your heart are triggered out of sync, resulting in heart rates that are irregular and often too fast. These abnormal rhythms can cause a host of problems that can decrease your life expectancy, but early diagnosis and treatment may help.
When you have atrial fibrillation, the electrical system that powers your heart and keeps its rhythm regular doesn't work correctly. Instead of steady, regular impulses triggering each heartbeat, numerous impulses are generated in a rapid and disorganized manner from various electrical points in the heart.
When this happens, the chambers of your heart don't pump completely or effectively. This makes the heart have to work harder overall, and can increase your risk of blood clots because of the blood that is left behind after an incomplete beat.
There are a number of ways atrial fibrillation, or Afib, can impact your overall health and life expectancy. The life expectancy, or mortality rate, of people with Afib depends on a number of things like:
Find out what you can do to increase your chances of living a long and healthy life with Afib.
Atrial fibrillation can impact your health and life span in a number of ways. Overall, mortality rates are four times higher in people with atrial fibrillation than in the general population, although the specific cause of death varies greatly.
Deaths linked to Afib dropped in the early part of the 21st century before hitting a plateau, but mortality rates associated with Afib have been rising—especially in younger people—since about 2011.
Mortality rates with Afib aren't usually directly linked to the condition itself, but rather to the complications that arise from it. The leading causes of death related to atrial fibrillation include:
These complications can develop depending on how well your Afib is controlled, and what effect it has on your overall heart function.
When it comes to Afib mortality, older adults make up the largest portion of people whose deaths are linked to the condition. Mortality rates in younger adults are on the rise, though, and experts blame this shift on a number of factors such as increased rates of:
All of these can contribute to poor cardiac health overall and increase mortality rates associated with Afib. As a whole, Afib is most deadly in people who have comorbidities, or other serious health problems that can increase the chances of complications.
There are demographic differences associated with increased Afib mortality, too. Afib mortality rates are highest among White men, followed by Black men, White women, and Black women.
Historically, Afib is more prevalent in people of European descent, but recent data suggests that the lower numbers among Black men and women are due more to underdetection and underdiagnosis than to a lower overall prevalence.
Mortality rates are increasing the fastest among Black men, according to recent reports, and demographic trends shift when you look at Afib mortality rates in younger adults. In younger adults, Black men and women have the highest mortality rates, while White men and women lag behind.
There are many cases of Afib that go undetected because the condition doesn't always cause noticeable symptoms. When symptoms do occur with Afib, they typically include things like:
Your doctor may diagnose you with Afib during a routine wellness check, even if you haven't experienced any symptoms. People most at risk of developing Afib include those with:
Without treatment, Afib can lead to a number of complications and weaken your heart. The main causes of death linked to Afib are ischemic diseases, like stroke and heart attack. These are problems that develop when blood—and therefore oxygen—is cut off from a particular part of the body. Cerebral ischemic and ischemic heart disease are top causes of mortality in people with Afib.
In addition to a loss of function or oxygen from inadequate pumping, Afib can cause a buildup of blood in the chambers of the heart, where clots can form. These blood clots can travel through the body, leading to strokes and other complications.
How much effect Afib has on your overall life expectancy depends on several factors.
There are several things—and usually a combination of several—that can lead to Afib.
Heart diseases and conditions are one major cause. Specific cardiac problems that can lead to Afib include:
Other non-cardiac issues can also lead to Afib, including:
Although the diagnosis of Afib in younger adults is becoming more common, the bulk of people with Afib are over age 65.
Increased age doesn't just increase your chances of developing Afib—it also increases your chances of death from this condition. Older adults are more likely to have other conditions that can complicate Afib, increasing mortality.
Mortality rates in people over age 75 with Afib are three times higher than in people under age 65.
Mortality related to Afib also depends on what type you have.
The goal of Afib treatment is to regulate your heart rhythm and prevent complications. In some cases of Afib, treatment can correct the abnormal rhythm. This fix can be—but isn't always—permanent.
In many cases, Afib is treated with a combination of medications. Afib that can be reversed or corrected is usually caused by non-cardiac issues where the underlying condition (like thyroid imbalances) could be resolved. In some cases, electrical shock (cardioversion) or surgical procedures like ablation can resolve Afib, although the condition can return because of triggers like stress.
Adopting changes to improve your overall heart health is usually the first thing your doctor will recommend if you have Afib. Lifestyle changes that can have a positive effect in people with Afib include:
Medical management is common in people with Afib, too, since lifestyle changes are usually not enough to control the condition. Treatment plans for Afib may include a combination of several medications to control your heart rate and prevent blood clots.
Examples of medications that may be used to control your heart rate and rhythm in Afib include:
Blood thinners you may be prescribed to prevent blood clots can include:
For cases of Afib that don't resolve or cause severe symptoms, your doctor may consider more intensive treatments like:
Atrial fibrillation can take many forms. What causes it, how old you are, and what other conditions you have can all play a role in how your Afib is treated and the overall impact the condition has on your life span.
Your doctor will need to monitor you for some time to get a complete picture of how Afib is affecting you, how often it occurs and for how long, and what types of things can make it worse or better. Comorbidities can increase your risk of complications, so making positive lifestyle changes early may help you extend your life span if you have Afib.
Afib is a common heart condition that can lead to a number of complications, but some people who have this problem never experience any symptoms at all. If you experience feelings of sudden changes in your heart rate, pounding, or lightheadedness, talk to your doctor about possible causes of these symptoms. If you have atrial fibrillation, your doctor will help you develop a treatment plan that combines lifestyle changes and medications aimed at extending your life span and improving your quality of life.
Regular treatment with medications to control your heart rate and rhythm and prevent blood clots is key to managing Afib. You may also need to make lifestyle changes and consider more invasive treatments like surgery if your condition is severe. A good treatment regimen can help you extend the length and quality of your life with Afib.
People with Afib have mortality rates that are four times that of people without this condition. There are a number of things that can cause fatal complications with Afib, and your specific prognosis will depend on your age, type of Afib, treatment plan, and other health problems you may have.
There isn't any one specific food that can extend your life if you have Afib, but a heart-healthy diet can help you improve your overall cardiac health and avoid complications that could worsen your condition.