For American Heart Health Month, we often call attention to the impact of heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States and that it is crucial for everyone to be aware of ways to prevent it. American Heart Health Month is not only an opportunity to focus on heart disease, but also an opportunity to focus on the specific impact of heart rhythm disorders (or arrhythmias). In fact, lowering your risk factor for heart rhythm disorders can help prevent heart disease. Therefore, it is important to be aware of and take action to prevent heart rhythm disorders such as atrial fibrillation (AF).
Nearly four million in the United States suffer from arrhythmias each year. Arrhythmias–or heart rhythm disorders–affect the electrical system of the heart and often cause an irregular pulse.
Know the 3 “Ps” of the Your Heart
Your heart has three main chambers that we like to refer to as the 3 “P’s” of the heart. The three main components of your heart are:
- The Pump: The main muscular mass of the heart.
- The Pipes: The “plumbing” of the heart, where blood flows through all the arteries.
- The Pulse: The “electrical” system of the heart responsible for the pumping action, or heartbeat.
The most common heart rhythm disorders are the ones that affect the pulse or electrical system of the heart.
Recognize What Atrial Fibrillation Feels Like
Atrial Fibrillation — also known as Afib or AF — is the most common arrhythmia. According the Heart Rhythm Society, it affects more than 2.7 million American adults and can increase the risk of stroke five-fold. AF is characterized by a rapid and irregular heartbeat caused when the top chambers of the heart (the atria) quiver (fibrillate) erratically, sometimes faster than 200 times per minute. The condition can have a significant negative impact on an individual’s quality of life, causing heart palpitations, chronic fatigue and debilitating pain.
Many people with Afib experience minor or no symptoms at all, while others can tell as soon as it happens. The symptoms of Afib are different for each person, but it can feel like a fish flopping or drums pounding in your chest. Afib is a progressive condition, meaning that if it is not treated, it can worsen. When this occurs, episodes tend to become more frequent and last longer. It is important to see your doctor if you have symptoms of atrial fibrillation, because it becomes increasingly harder to treat once episodes become more persistent.
Prevent Sudden Cardiac Arrest
Heart rhythm disorders like Afib can lead to other more serious issues like sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), if undetected or untreated. Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating, abruptly and without warning. SCA is the cause of more than 350,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, taking more lives each year than breast cancer, lung cancer, or AIDS.
Some people mistake sudden cardiac arrest for a heart attack. However, it is important to understand the difference between them, as time is crucial in order to save someone who has gone into SCA. During sudden cardiac arrest, the heart stops beating and no blood is pumped to the rest of the body. This could be compared to losing electricity in your house. The heart “electricity” must be turned back on, typically through electrical shock.
A heart attack, typically known as a myocardial infarction (MI), affects the “plumbing” of the heart. A heart attack is caused by a blockage in a blood vessel that interrupts the flow of blood causing an area of the heart muscle to die. This causes a “blood backup” in the heart, similar to a backup in a plumbing line in a house.
5 Heart Health Actions
- Even people who look healthy and free of heart disease can have a heart rhythm disorder. There are many simple actions people can take. What may seem like a small lifestyle adjustment may have a huge impact on your heart health.
- You can help prevent heart rhythm disorders by taking the following actions:Exercise and be familiar with your maximal heart rate. From a cardiovascular health standpoint, it is generally recommended that people exercise at least 3 times weekly for approximately 30 minutes. If convenient, it is useful for people to monitor their heart rate while exercising. The main goal is to see if your heart rate increases to 60 to 80% of your maximal heart rate. This is the generally accepted target heart rate for most forms of exercise. A person’s maximal heart rate can be estimated by subtracting their age from 220.
- Pay Attention to your pulse. The heart of an average man beats approximately 70 times a minute, whereas the average woman has a heart rate of 78 beats per minute.
- Avoid or limit the intake of caffeine, alcohol and other substances. Limit intake to no more than 1 alcoholic drink / day which may lower the risk of heart problems & increase “good” cholesterol.
- Ask a doctor about ejection fraction (EF) monitoring. EF refers to the percentage of blood that is pumped out of the ventricles with each contraction of the heart. A normal heart pumps just over half the heart’s volume of blood with each beat. A normal ejection fraction is 50 to 75 percent.
- Know about electrophysiologists. If you feel your heart race, pound or flutter, consult your physician who may refer you to a heart specialist called an Electrophysiologist.
Electrophysiologists are cardiologists with advanced medical training that detect, diagnose and treat problems with the heart’s electrical system.
Dr. Devi G. Nair, M.D., an electrophysiologist at St. Bernards, diagnoses and treats heart rhythm problems. She has distinguished herself as an extraordinary heartcare specialist who is an advocate for patients of every age. Since coming to St. Bernards in 2011, she has performed a number of “firsts” — in the region, in the state and in the nation. And all of those translate to world-class care for patients in this region. She has served as physician chair for the St. Bernards Medical Group Health & Fitness Expo, plays an active role in providing pre-participation evaluations of Craighead County school athletes and was recognized by the statewide publication Arkansas Business it its 2015 Physician of the Year program.