A new health breakthrough has found that a history of high blood pressure and heart palpitations are the strongest risk factors for getting “atrial fibrillation” later in life. This common type of irregular heartbeat puts you at much greater risk for the most serious health problems.
While hypertension is a well-known risk factor for atrial fibrillation, we didn’t know much about palpitations. Atrial fibrillation is currently the most common cardiac arrhythmia and is a major risk factor for heart failure (risk tripled), stroke (risk increased up to five times) and overall mortality (risk doubled). The mortality and morbidity linked with atrial fibrillation remain, according to experts, “unacceptably high.”
The real breakthrough here is the emergence of palpitations as a risk factor for atrial fibrillation. It comes from a large study in Norway, with nearly 23,000 adults included, between 25 and 96 years of age. Results showed that atrial fibrillation was recorded in 361 women (three percent) and 461 men (four percent) in 11 years of follow-up. Age, self-reported palpitations and hypertension were the strongest risk factors for atrial fibrillation.
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Having frequent palpitations increased the risk of atrial fibrillation in women by 62% and in men by 91%.
They also found that, for palpitations, several significant risk factors were related to lifestyle. But for atrial fibrillation, the biggest factors were biological, such as age, blood pressure, height, body mass index, and diabetes. Overall, the researchers concluded that palpitations are casually associated with atrial fibrillation.
The word “palpitations” is used subjectively to describe irregular heartbeat or accelerated heart rate. It’s likely, researchers say, that many palpitations also represent cases of irregular heart rhythm — which, in itself, is a main characteristic of atrial fibrillation.
A well-known study of 190 patients with palpitations concluded that cardiac arrhythmias were diagnosed in 40%. This and other studies suggest that palpitations can represent mechanisms of an irregular heartbeat. That said, palpitations are not necessarily harmful themselves. They are, in fact, mostly harmless; the challenge is to detect those that might signify an underlying condition and future atrial fibrillation.
You can reduce palpitations by modifying lifestyle factors, such as abstaining from alcohol and not smoking, though it isn’t clear if that will reduce your risk of atrial fibrillation. The study also confirmed that high blood pressure remains a major risk factor for atrial fibrillation.
If you have heart palpitations, particularly along with high blood pressure, work with your doctor to help protect yourself from possible heart issues in the future.