Keeping the Rhythm for Heart Health

Your body is like a machine, and the heart is its battery. Like other batteries, your heart can wear out over time.

According to the American Heart Association, your heart is made up of four chambers, including two upper chambers called the left and right atria and two lower chambers called the left and right ventricles. Every time your heart beats, the lower chambers pull blood from the upper chambers and then send it out to the rest of your body. The chambers are connected by valves that open and close like doors to let the blood through.

“Billions of cells have to squeeze and relax in perfect rhythmic sequence for your heart to work properly,” says R. Haris Naseem, M.D., clinical cardiac electrophysiologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Denton. “If your heart misses a beat for even three seconds, you can pass out. There’s no room for mistakes.”

Electric Avenues

The heart’s electrical system orchestrates this intricate dance between the heart’s chambers. Specialized cells interspersed throughout the heart send pulses that instruct the chambers and valves when to open and close. Together, these electrical cells are called the sinus node.

“Broadly speaking, abnormal heart rhythms are caused either by congenital or acquired problems,” Dr. Naseem explains. “That is, arrhythmias occur either when your body has extra electrical wiring or when the sinus node misfires.”

The most common type of electrical misfiring is called atrial fibrillation or “AFib,” which is often due to age-related wear and tear. Other conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, can contribute to the development of AFib.

Finding the Rhythm

It’s important to seek medical help for an abnormal heart rhythm, as untreated arrhythmia can have severe consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 20 percent of ischemic strokes are caused by atrial fibrillation.

“The most common cause of death among people with heart disease is electrical misfiring that leads to cardiac arrest,” Dr. Naseem says. “Fortunately, arrhythmias that weren’t even treatable 15 years ago are now curable thanks to modern technologies. Those that can’t be cured are still highly manageable.”

Am I at Risk?

You’re more likely to develop atrial fibrillation if:

  • You have certain health conditions,such as diabetes, hypertension,heart disease or heart failure.
  • You’ve had a heart attack.
  • You recently had heart surgery.
  • You drink excessively or smoke.
  • You’re age 60 or greater.

The average heart beats around 70 times per minute. During an atrial fibrillation episode, heart rate often reaches upwards of 300 beats per minute, according to the Heart Rhythm Society.

To find out if you are at risk for heart disease, visit YourHeartAge.com.

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