Behavior Modification in Treatment of Atrial Fibrillation
The Link Between Weight and Atrial Fibrillation
Being overweight or obese can lead to a range of health problems, from high blood pressure and diabetes to sleep apnea and coronary artery disease. But what many people may not realize is that carrying a few extra pounds can also increase your risk for atrial fibrillation, or Afib, a common type of irregular heart rhythm, and worsen the condition if you already have it. Almost 2.5 million people in the United States currently have Afib, and that number is projected to double by 2050. Understanding the link between weight and atrial fibrillation — and how weight loss impacts it — can help you improve your overall health while reducing your Afib symptoms.
How Obesity Can Cause Atrial Fibrillation
First, it’s important to know how excess weight can contribute to the development of atrial fibrillation. “Obese individuals are at a 49 percent higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation,” says Vishva Dev, MD, director of cardiology at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif. “And that risk progressively increases with the degree of obesity. Every unit increase in the [body max index] above 25 increases the risk of atrial fibrillation by 4 percent.”
Among the most common health conditions that can develop as a result of being overweight is hypertension, or high blood pressure, which can also lead to atrial fibrillation. “High blood pressure adds extra strain to the heart and can cause enlargement of the atria, or upper heart chambers,” says Sarah Samaan, MD, a cardiologist at Legacy Heart Center and author ofBest Practices for a Healthy Heart: How to Stop Heart Disease Before or After It Starts. “Consequently, the electrical patterns of the heart, which begin in the atria, can become stretched out and disordered, causing atrial fibrillation.”
Sleep apnea, another condition that's more common in people who are overweight or obese, creates abrupt elevations in blood pressure and the pressure inside the chest. This can also stretch or enlarge the atria, increasing the risk of developing atrial fibrillation.
In addition, carrying around extra body fat may also result in inflammatory substances that can affect the heart’s normal function. One study published in theJournal of the American College of Cardiologyin 2012 found that obese people with atrial fibrillation had distinct changes in their heart rhythms because of the condition. And as long as they remained obese, the more likely they would continue to have an irregular heartbeat.
Obesity also increases the occurrence of diabetes, coronary artery disease, and congestive heart failure — all of which are additional factors contributing to atrial fibrillation.
Benefits of Weight Loss for Atrial Fibrillation
The best health recommendation is to lose weight before atrial fibrillation develops. However, weight loss can still make a big difference after an Afib diagnosis. “Choosing a healthy lifestyle can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure and reduce the risk for coronary artery disease and stroke,” Dr. Samaan says. “That often leads to lower doses of medication and fewer factors that may interfere with successful atrial fibrillation management.”
In addition, individuals that maintain a healthy weight tend to have lower blood levels of inflammatory proteins, which have been linked to heart disease, as well as a reduced risk for developing sleep apnea.
“Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly are not only critical for controlling obesity. They also have other well-known benefits, such as greatly improving overall quality of life, happiness, and well-being, in addition to preventing numerous diseases,” says Dr. Dev. And that applies to everyone — whether you’re at risk for developing atrial fibrillation, living with this type of arrhythmia, or just looking to live a healthier lifestyle. To get started, talk to your doctor about diet and exercise changes you can make, including how to exercise safely with Afib.
Video: A patient's experience with atrial fibrillation (afib)
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