Caring for an Elder with Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation (also known as A-fib) can be difficult to understand and plan a life caring for another around. Understanding A-fib and the dangers involved with the disease can help you center your care on an elder’s needs.

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A-fib is an irregular heart rate that usually causes the rest of the body to receive reduced blood flow. The upper chambers in the heart tend to beat out of time with the lower chambers. A person can have occasional or chronic A-fib. Occasional or paroxysmal A-fib is marked by symptoms lasting from a minute long or an hour long before returning to normal. On the other hand, chronic A-fib means that the person’s heart chambers are always out of sync with each other and symptoms may last much longer if left untreated. This can lead to serious complications, even though A-fib is not deadly in itself. Here’s what you need to know as a caretaker.

Many things can cause Atrial Fibrillation

There are several conditions associated with A-fib. The following things may cause A-fib:

  • viral infections

  • stimulant use

  • overactive Thyroid

  • stress

  • chronic lung diseases

  • sleep apnea

  • high blood pressure

  • heart attack

  • congenital heart defects

  • unusual heart valves

  • prior surgery on the heart

The symptoms

Although some sufferers of A-fib may not experience any symptoms at all, people with A-fib will experience chest pain, heart palpitations, decreased blood pressure, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, confusion and weakness.  If you ever hear a patient discussing how they feel a fluttering or pounding feeling in their chest accompanied by dizziness they need to get checked for A-fib. It is more common in senior citizens as the likelihood of developing A-fib increases with age. Too many cases go undiagnosed which is dangerous.

Deadly Complications

Stroke is a serious complication that can arise from A-fib due to the blood pooling in the upper chambers of the heart. Pools of blood can easily form clots that then travel through the bloodstream, and into the brain where they do serious damage. An ischemic stroke happens when the blood flow to the brain is cut off because of a clot. Without oxygen, the nerve cells in the brain will die with no chance of restoration. 75% of strokes are due to blood clots which makes ischemic strokes the most common type. About 20% of strokes in the U.S. are caused by A-fib. Approximately 70% of sufferers of A-fib who also suffer a stroke die because of it.

If anybody is showing signs of stroke call 911 right away and seek medical attention as soon as possible. Even just one symptom is reason to be concerned. Note the time that symptoms began so you can give this information to healthcare providers. Every second counts to be able to prevent permanent brain damage and disability.

Heart failure can also be a result of A-fib. As time passes, untreated A-fib will weaken the heart to the point of exhaustion.

Medication to prevent stroke

Coumadin (Warfarin) is an anticoagulant (blood thinner) that has dangerous side effects including internal bleeding. If a patient is taking Warfarin it is important to have regular blood monitoring performed by a doctor. While it is dangerous because it may cause internal bleeding, there is a reversal agent for Warfarin, so the risk is a bit lower than some others.

Pradaxa (Dabigatran) doesn’t require a doctor monitor your blood, and is as successful as Warfarin in preventing blood clots but this medication is not for those with an artificial heart valve. Many find it quite unsettling that Pradaxa lacks a reversal agent and therefore has a much higher risk for fatal internal bleeding, which has triggered many lawsuits.

Knowing about treatment options

It’s possible to fully relieve the irregular heart rhythm by taking care of underlying conditions, but each case is different and a doctor may need to reset the heart rhythm.  A doctor can reset the rhythm using a procedure called cardioversion which can be done either an electrical shock to the heart or with medication.

Surgery might be necessary if cardioversion doesn’t work. There are two main surgical procedures that control A-fib including Radio Frequency Catheter Ablation and Surgical Maze Procedure. Both stop the atria from sending irregular electrical impulses to the ventricles either by using a pacemaker or simply altering the pathways of electrical current by creating scar tissue.

Consult a doctor

Advise an elder with any symptoms of atrial fibrillation to see a doctor. It can be diagnosed by an electrocardiogram worn by the patient monitoring the heart. The symptoms may be another heart arrhythmia or A-fib, but it’s always important to listen to the body and get help when needed.

I’m Madeline Ferdinand. Two years ago my mother had a stroke, and I became fascinated with cardiovascular health. I care for my mom at my home where we constantly snack on almonds and drink tea.