Can younger adults experience atrial fibrillation?

Published: Wednesday, June 12, 2024
Cardiology, Electrophysiology

In the past, atrial fibrillation, often called AFib, was primarily diagnosed in older adults. Recent research, though, shows that the condition is more common in younger adults than previously thought. Wondering whether you are at risk for developing this common heart issue? Keep reading for the details.

What is AFib?

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of arrhythmia, or heart rhythm disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 12.1 million people in the United States have the condition.

When someone has AFib, the beating in the upper chambers of the heart (the left and right atria) is irregular, which disrupts blood flow from the atria into the ventricles, the bottom chambers of the heart. What does that mean? Essentially, the upper chambers of the heart and the lower chambers of the heart aren’t working together, which can make the heart beat slowly, quickly or irregularly.

Atrial fibrillation can occur in brief episodes that resolve, or it can be a more persistent condition. During AFib, a person may experience various symptoms, including:

  • Heart palpitations or fluttering
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Fatigue or decreased stamina
  • Lightheadedness or feeling faint
  • Shortness of breath or decrease in exercise tolerance

Because these symptoms can also be related to a life-threatening health issue, it’s important to talk to your doctor or seek medical attention promptly if you experience them. Prompt diagnosis can also help you get the care you need for AFib, which can help prevent complications like stroke and heart failure.

Who is at risk of developing AFib?

If you look up the risk factors for atrial fibrillation, you’ll probably see a note that says something like, “The risk of AFib increases as you get older.”

Being age 65 or older has long been considered one of the strongest risk factors for the condition, with high blood pressure (also more common in older adults) coming in a close second.

Does that mean younger adults aren’t at risk? Recent research is shedding new light on this question.

A study published in April found that atrial fibrillation is more common among younger adults than previously thought. The study reviewed the medical records of more than 67,000 adults who received care related to AFib.

While the average age for AFib onset among those patients was 72, nearly one-quarter of those who were diagnosed were younger than 65. Men within that group were up to 1.5 times more likely to die within 10 years than peers without AFib, while women were up to 2.4 times more likely to die.

The findings seem to indicate that while advancing age is an important risk factor for AFib, it’s important to pay attention to other risk factors, including high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart failure, kidney disease, smoking, and moderate to heavy alcohol use.

What is behind the increase in young adults with AFib?

Researchers believe the increase in younger adults with AFib is related to two separate factors:

  • Better diagnostic tools mean more cases of AFib are being detected.
  • Young adults increasingly have other risk factors for the condition.

If you circle back to the risk factors identified above, you’ll notice that many of them relate to lifestyle habits. Many Americans today don’t get enough exercise, smoke, drink excessively, and eat a diet high in saturated fat, all of which place you at an increased risk of developing AFib.

There’s good news, however. Because many risk factors for atrial fibrillation are lifestyle-related, that means they’re largely preventable. Younger adults can take steps to lower their risk simply by making adjustments to their habits. Little tweaks can go a long way.

Next steps

Georgia Heart Institute offers a full spectrum of diagnostic tools and treatment options for AFib and other heart rhythm disorders. Call 770-848-7885 or click here to learn more.

Joon Ahn, MD, is the director of the electrophysiology program at Georgia Heart Institute.