Art of Aging: Afib more common than previously thought

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Atrial Fibrillation is a common heart rhythm problem. However, a local doctor's studies show it's even more common than previously thought.

For Alexandra Vickers, atrial fibrillation came out of the blue.

"I woke up in the middle of the night with my heart pounding," she said.

For years, medications controlled the irregular rhythm. Then the episodes mounted, including some she couldn't feel.

"It got to the point I was in continual Afib," she recalled.

Afib is dangerous because it can allow blood clots to form in the heart and go to the brain, causing strokes.

Dr. Peter Kowey of Lankenau Heart Institute is on a quest to find Afib sufferers whose episodes are silent or minor.

"We're not talking tiny strokes. We're talking about big strokes that disable people or kill people, or put them in a nursing home," said Dr. Kowey.

He took part in a recent study of people who hadn't been diagnosed but did have risk factors, like their age, high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, or obesity.

After several years of tracking their heartbeats with tiny implantable recorders, they found that nearly 40 percent had significant Afib.

"It was remarkable and pretty surprising," said Dr. Kowey.

Dr. Kowey says we can't implant recorders in everyone at-risk, but doctors should be more aware of the possibility of Afib in more patients and people who feel any palpitations should report them to their doctor.

There are more options for effective treatment.

"Over the last 5 years or so, we've seen the advent of drugs which are superior to what we used to use - and safer," said Dr. Kowey.

After 3 procedures, Alexandra's heart is keeping its rhythm and she's going non-stop in community work, and her passion - traveling.

She recently checked one item off her bucket list - climbing Hawaii's Diamond Head Crater.

"Very exhausting, but it was thrilling because I did it!" she said.

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