A-fib risks on the rise

Short of heart disease itself, atrial fibrillation is one of the most serious conditions your heart could face -- and I'm seeing more patients with it than ever before.

Looks like I'm not the only one, either.

The number of atrial fibrillation patients is growing so fast that it could double or even triple within just a few years -- from 5 million patients today to 12 million or even as much as 17 million by 2030 if current trends continue, according to a new study.

Now, I've never been much for trends myself. But as far as trends go, this is one you want no part of -- because atrial fibrillation is one of the worst irregular heartbeat conditions around.

It strikes when the upper chambers of the heart fall out of synch with the lower ones, resulting in palpitations so severe they can be painful. Some of my patients tell me it feels as if the heart is trying to jump right out of the body.

I hope you never experience that yourself.

But even worse than how it feels is what it does to you -- because atrial fibrillation can increase your risk of stroke by as much as 500 percent and dementia by 130 percent.

It can also increase your risk of heart failure and even death.

If you don't have atrial fibrillation, you can take steps right now to minimize your risk -- and you can start with the healthy decisions you know you should be making anyway: Don't smoke, watch your weight and eat right.

Second, take fish oil supplements. One recent study finds that seniors with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids -- especially DHA -- have a 30 percent lower risk of A-fib than seniors with the lowest.

Third, watch out for sleep apnea. That's a condition where you stop breathing in your sleep -- and it's known to put such a strain on the heart that it can cause A-fib (not to mention dementia, heart disease and more).

The best treatment for apnea is plain old weight loss.

Fourth, be more active -- because a sedentary lifestyle is another major A-fib risk factor. (But if you do get the condition, speak to your doctor about the best way to get your exercise. In some cases, exertion can trigger A-fib episodes.)

And finally, limit your drinking or give it up completely, especially if you have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease.

I know many people believe moderate drinking is good for the heart, but the truth is much more complicated -- because booze packs plenty of clear risks along with some very debatable benefits. Last year, for example, a study found that moderate drinkers with heart disease, diabetes or risk factors for heart disease have a 15 percent higher risk of A-fib.

If you do get A-fib, don't panic. It can be treated and even cured. In fact, one type of A-fib has an 80 percent cure rate through treatment and the same healthy lifestyle changes I just mentioned.

For these patients, A-fib is just a brief and scary episode.

But if you make those changes today, you might never battle that episode in the first place.