Atrial fibrillation is the most common 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 an irregular and often too fast heart rate. These abnormal rhythms can cause a range of problems that can reduce your life expectancy, but early diagnosis and treatment can help.
When you have atrial fibrillation, the electrical system that powers your heart and keeps its rhythm on track doesn’t work properly. Unlike the steady, regular pulses that trigger each heartbeat, the various electrical points in the heart generate large numbers of pulses in a fast and chaotic manner.
When this happens, your heart chambers don’t pump blood fully or efficiently. This makes the heart have to work harder, and it increases the risk of blood clots, because blood is left behind after an incomplete beat.
Atrial fibrillation, or Afib, can affect your overall health and life expectancy in several ways. Life expectancy or mortality in people with atrial fibrillation depends on many factors, such as:
- the severity or type of atrial fibrillation
- Whether intermittent or constant
- your age
- Other health problems you may have
- How to treat your atrial fibrillation
Find out what you can do to increase your chances of living a long and healthy life with Afib.
Facts about life expectancy in atrial fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation can affect your health and longevity in several ways. Overall, people with atrial fibrillation are four times more likely to die than the general population, although specific causes of death vary widely.
Afib-related deaths declined in the early 2000s and then plateaued, but Afib-related deaths have been rising since around 2011, especially among young adults.
Mortality from Afib is usually not directly related to the condition itself, but rather to the complications it causes. The leading causes of death associated with atrial fibrillation include:
- Cerebral infarction or ischemic stroke
- Cardiovascular events such as ischemic heart disease
- circulatory disorder
- heart failure
The development of these complications depends on how well your atrial fibrillation is controlled and how it affects your overall heart function.
The main reason for the high death rate in the United States
Patient prognosis varies
In terms of atrial fibrillation mortality, older adults account for the largest share of deaths related to this condition. Death rates among young people, however, are on the rise, and experts blame a variety of factors for the shift, such as:
- heart disease
All of these can contribute to poor overall heart health and increase Afib-related mortality. Overall, AFib is deadliest in people with comorbidities or other serious health problems that can increase the chance of complications.
There were also demographic differences in increased AF mortality. Atrial fibrillation mortality was highest among white men, followed by black men, white women, and black women.
Historically, AFib has been more prevalent in people of European ancestry, but recent data suggest that the lower numbers of black men and women are more due to under-testing and under-diagnosis than to lower prevalence overall.
According to recent reports, black men are seeing the fastest increase in death rates, and when you look at Afib death rates among young adults, the demographic trends change. Among young adults, black men and women had the highest death rates, while white men and women fell behind.
What are health disparities and why are they important?
AF symptoms are not always obvious
There are many cases of Afib that go undetected because the condition does not always cause obvious symptoms. When Afib does have symptoms, they usually include the following:
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- irregular heartbeat
- A throbbing or popping feeling in the chest
Even if you have no symptoms, your doctor may diagnose you with Afib during a routine health check. People most at risk of developing atrial fibrillation include:
- old age
- heart failure
- ischemic heart disease
- chronic kidney disease
- European ancestry
- moderate or heavy drinking
- left heart enlargement
Symptoms caused by atrial fibrillation
Risk of untreated atrial fibrillation
Left untreated, atrial fibrillation can lead to many complications and weaken your heart. The leading cause of death associated with Afib is ischemic diseases such as stroke and heart attack. These problems arise when blood — and therefore oxygen — is cut off from specific parts of the body. Cerebral ischemia and ischemic heart disease are the leading causes of death in patients with atrial fibrillation.
In addition to loss of function or oxygen due to insufficient pumping, atrial fibrillation can cause blood to build up in the chambers of the heart, which can form clots. These blood clots can travel through the body, leading to strokes and other complications.
How to Treat Atrial Fibrillation
Factors Affecting Life Expectancy
How much atrial fibrillation affects your overall life expectancy depends on several factors.
root cause of atrial fibrillation
Several things—usually a combination of things—can cause Afib.
Heart disease and illness are one of the main reasons. Specific heart problems that can cause atrial fibrillation include:
- cardiac disease
- congenital heart disease
- previous heart surgery
- heart failure
- heart valve disease
Other non-cardiac problems can also cause atrial fibrillation, including:
- Thyroid imbalance
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Viral infection
- respiratory or lung disease
age at diagnosis
Although the diagnosis of Afib is becoming more common among young people, most people with Afib are over the age of 65 years.
Getting older not only increases your chances of developing atrial fibrillation, it also increases your chances of dying from the condition. Older adults are more likely to have other conditions that can complicate Afib, thereby increasing mortality.
People over the age of 75 with Afib are three times as likely to die as those under the age of 65.
Type of atrial fibrillation
Afib-related mortality also depends on your type.
- Paroxysmal Afib occurs rapidly and is usually asymptomatic. This type of Afib can go away on its own, but it can also happen repeatedly.
- Persistent atrial fibrillation is diagnosed when atrial fibrillation persists for more than a week. This type of Afib may also go away on its own, but most people with this form of Afib still require medication to manage the condition.
- Long-term persistent atrial fibrillation is a form of persistent atrial fibrillation that lasts more than a year.
- Permanent Afib is diagnosed when you have had many treatments or procedures and your Afib has not resolved.
Is atrial fibrillation reversible?
The goal of atrial fibrillation treatment is to regulate your heart rhythm and prevent complications. In some cases of Afib, treatment can correct the abnormal rhythm. This fix can – but isn’t always – permanent.
In many cases, AFib is treated with a combination of drugs. Atrial fibrillation, which can be reversed or corrected, is usually caused by a non-cardiac problem that can address the underlying condition, such as a thyroid imbalance. In some cases, surgical procedures such as electrical shocks (cardioversion) or ablation can resolve atrial fibrillation, although the condition may return due to triggers such as stress.
Rhythm control therapy for atrial fibrillation
Afib Treatment for Heart Health
If you have atrial fibrillation, your doctor will usually first recommend changes to improve your overall heart health. Lifestyle changes that can positively impact people with atrial fibrillation include:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet.
- Exercise regularly.
- Limit or avoid alcohol, street drugs and stimulants.
- Quit smoking.
- Manage stress.
- lose weight.
Medical management of patients with atrial fibrillation is also common, as lifestyle changes are often insufficient to control the condition. Treatment plans for Afib may include a combination of several drugs to control your heart rate and prevent blood clots.
Examples of medications that can be used to control heart rate and rhythm in atrial fibrillation include:
- Lopressor (Metoprolol)
- Coreg (carvedilol)
- Tylenol (Atenolol)
- Cardizem (diltiazem)
- Verelan (Verapamil)
- Digoxin (Digitalis)
Blood thinners that may be prescribed for you to prevent blood clots include:
- Coumarin (Warfarin)
- Plavix (clopidogrel)
- Lixiana (Edoxaban)
- Pradaxa (dabigatran)
- Eliquis (apixaban)
For cases of Afib that do not resolve or cause severe symptoms, your doctor may consider more intensive treatments, such as:
- electrical cardioversion to reset your heart rhythm
- Catheter ablation to destroy damaged heart tissue
- pacemaker that controls the heart rhythm
How to Treat Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation can take many forms. What causes it, your age, and your other conditions can all affect how your atrial fibrillation is treated and how the condition affects your lifespan in general.
Your doctor will need to monitor you for a period of time to get a complete picture of how Afib affects you, how often and how long it occurs, and what types of things can make it worse or better. Comorbidities can increase your risk of complications, so if you have atrial fibrillation, early lifestyle changes may help you live longer.
Atrial fibrillation is a common heart disease that can cause many complications, but some people with this problem experience no symptoms at all. If you experience a sudden change in your heart rate, a beating, 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 designed to prolong your life and improve your quality of life.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will Afib Treatment Improve?
Regular medication to control your heart rate and rhythm and prevent blood clots is key to managing atrial fibrillation. If your condition is severe, you may also need to make lifestyle changes and consider more invasive treatments, such as surgery. A good treatment plan can help you extend the length and quality of your life with Afib.
What is the mortality rate for atrial fibrillation?
People with Afib are four times more likely to die than those without the condition. There are many things that can lead to fatal complications of atrial fibrillation, and your specific prognosis will depend on your age, type of atrial fibrillation, treatment plan, and other health problems you may have.
Which foods can prolong the life of atrial fibrillation?
If you have atrial fibrillation, no one specific food will prolong your life, but a heart-healthy diet can help you improve your overall heart health and avoid complications that could make your condition worse.