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Women: Don’t be ‘surprised’ by AF

A researcher from British Columbia is urging all older adults – but especially women – to be aware of the symptoms of atrial fibrillation (AF) and to seek immediate medical help if they suspect they may have it. 

As people are living longer, the number of people with AF – the most common type of heart arrhythmia – continues to rise. Because the risk increases with age and women generally live longer than men, more women than men will experience AF during their lifetimes. The CDC estimates that more than 12 million people in the U.S. will have AF by 2030, the vast majority of them over 65.

Postdoctoral Research Fellow Ryan Wilson, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia-Okanagan says that despite its prevalence, many people do not understand AF symptoms and tend to ignore them. He conducted a small study of older patients seen in a hospital emergency department which found that 77% of women participants had experienced AF symptoms for over a year before receiving a diagnosis. Some of their chief symptoms included shortness of breath, a feeling of fluttering in the chest, dizziness and fatigue; but many also experienced gastrointestinal distress or diarrhea.

Despite their long-standing symptoms, most of these women expressed complete surprise about their AF diagnosis, Wilson said.

He added that unlike the majority of men included in his study, many of the women had delayed seeking medical help because they doubted their symptoms were serious. Others had dismissed them because they occurred after eating. Most also had caregiving responsibilities that prevented them from seeking help, so they had chosen to self-manage their symptoms.

Even more alarming for Wilson, however, was the fact that if women had mentioned their symptoms to their primary care physician, some said their symptoms were dismissed.

“There was a lot more anger among several of the women because they had been told nothing was wrong by their healthcare provider,” he said. “To be repeatedly told there is nothing wrong, and then later find yourself in the emergency room with AF, was incredibly frustrating for these women.”

While he pointed out that AF can be hard to diagnose because its signs are sometimes vague, Wilson emphasized that older adults should be aware of its signs and not hesitate to insist on further testing if symptoms occur. 

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