AFib and Stroke: Understanding the Fivefold Increase in Risk During American Stroke Month

The most significant danger associated with Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) is an increased risk of stroke; individuals with AFib are five times more likely to experience a stroke compared to those without AFib. Stroke is a disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain, and it’s the No. 5 cause of death and the primary cause of disability in the U.S. Approximately 800,000 Americans have a stroke each year, and one in four survivors will have another one, according to the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.

May is American Stroke Month, and the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association works to raise awareness and improve the quality of care for stroke patients.

Colleen Hanley, MD, is a cardiac electrophysiologist at Lankenau Heart Institute, part of Main Line Health. Her expertise is in all aspects of the care of patients with simple to complex cardiac arrhythmias, including clinical evaluation, electrophysiology mapping studies, medical management, device implantation (pacemakers and ICDs) and monitoring, and catheter ablation procedures. Dr. Hanley also served as 2021 Main Line Health Go Red Champion in Philadelphia.

What is AFib?

“AFib is an irregular heartbeat in which the atria, the heart’s upper chambers, don’t contract in a strong, rhythmic way. When a heart is in AFib, it may not pump enough oxygen-rich blood out to the body,” said Dr. Hanley. “When the heart is in AFib, blood can become static and may be left pooling inside the upper left atrium. And when blood pools, a clot can form. When a clot is pumped out of the heart, it can travel to the brain, block an artery in the brain and cause a stroke.”

Common symptoms of AFib include:

  • racing heart
  • fluttering or palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • anxiety
  • shortness of breath or fainting

If you notice symptoms of AFib, contact your doctor. Even if your symptoms go away, it’s still important to have a physical exam and monitor your heart’s activity.

What happens when you have a stroke?

“A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or it ruptures. When that happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood and/or oxygen it needs, so brain cells die,” said Hanley. “An ischemic stroke can be caused either by a clot obstructing the flow of blood to the brain or by a hemorrhagic stroke, which is a blood vessel rupturing and preventing blood flow to the brain. A transient ischemic attack (TIA), or ‘mini stroke,’ is caused by a temporary clot.”

Stroke Prevention

A large majority of strokes can be prevented through education and lifestyle changes such as moving more, eating smart and managing blood pressure. It’s important to “Know Your Numbers” – four key personal health numbers that help determine risk for stroke:

  • total cholesterol
  • blood pressure
  • blood sugar
  • body mass index

Hanley stresses the importance of knowing your numbers as well as family history.

“It’s also valuable to learn your family health history and to talk to your doctor about lowering your personal risk for stroke,” said Hanley. “Your family may impact your health more than you think.”

How to spot a stroke

“If you think that someone may be having a stroke, the easiest way to remember the symptoms is the acronym, ‘F.A.S.T.’,” said Hanley.

She goes onto explain that while men and women often feel the same symptoms of a stroke, women may also experience general weakness, being disoriented, and may have some fatigue and nausea.

“Stroke kills more women than men,” said Hanley. “Sometimes those additional symptoms that women may have get overlooked because they are so subtle, which can delay lifesaving and timely treatment.”

Hanley stresses that while a person may be showing any of these symptoms, and even if those symptoms go away, you still must call 911 and get them to the hospital immediately to be evaluated.

For more information about strokes, visit this website.