When your doctor diagnoses you with atrial fibrillation (AFib), you might wonder what to expect. Your prognosis is a prediction of how your disease could affect you in the future and how long you might live.
Not everyone wants to know their prognosis. If you do, the doctor who treats your AFib is the best person to ask. Your doctor will regularly check your heart to see how healthy it is and what types of treatment you need.
Untreated AFib can raise your risk for problems like a heart attack, stroke, and heart failure, which could shorten your life expectancy. But treatments and lifestyle changes can help prevent these problems and manage your risks.
What’s Risky About AFib
AFib may cause no symptoms. But symptoms like a pounding or skipping heartbeat, chest pain, or dizziness can happen and are often related to a reduction in the amount of blood the heart pumps out. These symptoms may go away on their own or get better when you take medicine. These episodes may happen more often, with symptoms that may last longer.
AFib can become more persistent over time. It can lead to risks such as:
- An abnormal heart rhythm. On its own, this may not be life-threatening. But it can cause serious complications if untreated.
- Blood clots. When your heart doesn't beat strongly enough, your blood slows down and pools. Clumps called clots form in the pooled blood. A blood clot can block the flow of blood to your organs. A blockage to your brain can cause a stroke. The chance of having a stroke is about four times higher in people with AFib than in those without this condition.
- Heart failure. Over time, your heart can get so weak that it can't pump out enough blood to meet your body's needs. This is called heart failure.
AFib Prognosis: Factors That Matter
Many things affect your AFib prognosis, including your age, health, and what medicines you take.
Your age. The risk for AFib rises as you get older. People over 65 are more likely to have other health problems that weaken their heart.
Your sex. Women get AFib less often than men, but they're at higher risk for complications like heart attack and stroke from it.
The type of AFib you have. Doctors group AFib into types based on how often symptoms strike.
- Paroxysmal AFib is episodes of symptoms that come and go and often get better without treatment.
- Persistent AFib is a constant abnormal heart rhythm that doesn't improve until you treat it.
- Permanent AFib is an abnormal heart rhythm that doesn't go away.
Persistent and permanent AFib are more likely to cause complications than paroxysmal AFib.
Your CRP level. C-reactive protein (CRP) is a sign of inflammation in your body. A high CRP level can also increase your risk for a heart attack, stroke, and early death. Your doctor can check your CRP level with a blood test.
Whether you smoke. Smoking narrows blood vessels and makes your heart work harder.
What treatments you get. Medications to control your heart rate and blood thinners to prevent blood clots can help you avoid AFib complications. These treatments could improve your prognosis. Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs and blood pressure medicines might also help your outcome.
How AFib Affects Your Prognosis
AFib does raise the risk of dying early. Heart failure and stroke are two of the main causes of death in people with AFib. But with improved treatments, overall deaths from AFib have dropped.
There aren’t life expectancy statistics for people with AFib. For a personalized prognosis, ask your doctor what you can expect and what treatments and lifestyle changes can help. Exercise, weight loss, healthy eating, and treatments like blood thinners and blood pressure medicines might help you live longer -- and better -- with AFib.