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Understanding AFib: Tips for a healthy life with atrial fibrillation

Understanding AFib: Tips for a healthy life with atrial fibrillation

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While living with a serious and complex health condition such as atrial fibrillation, there are many approaches and health behaviors that can increase your quality of life.

My colleague Paul Wang, MD, director of Stanford’s Cardiac Arrhythmia Service, describes three steps AFib patients can take to improve their health: increase physical activity, eat a healthy diet, and care for your mental well-being.

“All three work together to improve your overall health,” Wang said.

Let’s break down these key healthy behaviors, plus a few more: 

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. A healthy diet emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich foods, and plant-derived fats like olive oil. Such a diet can slow down underlying problems that may have led to AFib.
  • Be physically active. Regular physical activity, such as brisk walking at least 30 minutes each day, will keep your heart as healthy as possible.
  • Take care of your own mental well-being. It is important to take time to do things that bring you joy and improve how you feel. If you have ongoing trouble with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, seek out the advice of a physician or therapist.
  • Don’t smoke. Cigarettes and other smoking devices (e.g., vaping, marijuana, etc.) can damage the blood vessels of the heart.
  • Carefully manage other medical issues. Many other conditions — such as high blood pressure and high thyroid hormone levels — if not well controlled, can worsen AFib.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine. These two compounds stimulate the heart and can make episodes of AFib more likely. Limit alcohol to one drink per day for women and two drinks a day for men. Keep caffeine intake down to the equivalent of one strong cup of coffee (250 mg) per day.
  • Manage your stress levels. Stress can contribute to AFib episodes and can impair your ability to cope with the added tasks needed to deal with AFib. Yoga, tai chi, and meditation are effective ways to manage stress.
  • Get adequate sleep. Most people require at least seven hours of sleep each night to feel their best. Sleep deprivation has unfavorable effects on the body.
  • Take prescribed medications consistently and as directed. Drugs prescribed for atrial fibrillation will only work if taken consistently and as prescribed. Warfarin and other blood thinners are less effective when you miss even a single dose.

These strategies, particularly when combined with standard medical approaches to AFib, are effective and life-changing.

George H., our 71-year-old retired engineer with AFib, has taken his doctor’s advice seriously. He has reduced his alcohol intake, gets more sleep, started to improve his diet, and every day either rides his bicycle or walks. His AFib has led to many complex issues that require doctors’ decisions and he has often felt left out of the conversation. For George, there is something satisfying and encouraging about doing his own part to improve his health. Overall, his quality of life has improved.

In addition to health habits that will keep your heart as healthy as possible, we recommend learning the details about AFib that can help you better manage your own health.

Three key AFib learning goals include:

  • Learn how to assess your heart beat so that you can tell when your heart is in AFib. Being able to feel the difference between AFib and a normal heart rhythm can allow you to seek help when you really need it. Similarly, assessing how fast your heart is beating can help you make better decisions about seeking help.
  • Learn your risk of having a stroke in the next year. Knowing your stroke risk score will help inform you and your doctor of whether blood thinners are recommended.
  • Know your medications. Gain knowledge about the medications used to treat AFib. Learning a little bit about blood thinners, heart rate-lowering medications and anti-arrhythmic drugs will go a long way towards making your visits with your doctor as effective as possible.

Finally, AFib patients and their doctors should strive to make shared decisions together that consider the advantages and disadvantages of drugs and other strategies. Only by proactively pursuing health and taking part in AFib treatment decisions will patients be able to maximize their outcomes and live their lives as fully as possible.

This is the final post in the Understanding AFib series to help patients with atrial fibrillation live healthier lives. George H. is an actual patient with some details altered to protect his confidentiality.

Randall Stafford, MD, PhD, is a professor of medicine at Stanford and practices primary care internal medicine. Stafford and Stanford cardiologist Paul Wang, MD, lead an American Heart Association effort to improve stroke prevention decision-making in atrial fibrillation.

Illustration by Vinita Bharat/Fuzzy Synapse

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