Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan
Associate Medical Director, British Heart Foundation
Hundreds of thousands of people across the UK are living with a silent, undetected threat in their hearts.
That hidden danger is a heart rhythm disorder known as atrial fibrillation (AF). AF is not life-threatening, but it can cause adverse symptoms and lead to a poorer quality of life.
Turbulent and stagnant blood flow within the hearts of people with AF increases the risk of a blood clot forming, which can lead to a devastating stroke if it travels up to the brain.
The risk of stroke for someone who has AF is five times higher than that of the general population, and AF may only be diagnosed after a stroke has already happened.
AF is diagnosed by an electrocardiogram (ECG), which takes a record of the heart’s electrical activity. An ECG might be done over a longer period of time to investigate palpitations if AF is intermittent.
200,000 people could be living with undiagnosed AF
Once AF is diagnosed, an individual risk assessment for stroke can be made to assess whether it’s appropriate to prescribe blood-thinning medications to reduce the chance of clots forming.
Many people with AF are diagnosed because they experience a fast, irregular heartbeat or have other symptoms.
The risk of stroke for someone who has AF is five times higher than that of the general population.
However, the BHF estimate that more than 200,000 people are living with undiagnosed AF in the UK.
This is worrying as some of these people may go on to suffer a stroke that could claim their life, leave them with physical disability or contribute to vascular dementia, which could have been avoided.
Wearable tech may help prevent AF
BHF researchers are working hard to find new and better ways to understand, prevent and diagnose AF.
Studies are ongoing to see how the technologies available today – wearables, smartphones and smartwatches – could help in future.
This tech could be used to detect abnormal heart rhythms. The data can be combined with AI and routinely collected healthcare data, to improve diagnosis.
Palpitations are a sensation of feeling your heartbeat. In most cases these are harmless.
However, if your palpitations last a long time, don’t improve or get worse, you should seek medical advice – despite the current pandemic.
This also applies if you have a history of heart problems and experience palpitations for the first time.
If you experience sudden dizziness, shortness of breath, fainting, chest pain or tightness, then it’s vital you seek urgent medical attention despite concerns over COVID-19.
COVID-19 innovations may help in detecting AF earlier
As we move towards restoration of regular NHS services and a new normal, the evidence-based treatment of high-risk conditions, such as AF, needs to be made a priority again.
Innovations and research brought about by the pandemic may lead to transformative ways to efficiently achieve NHS England’s Long Term Plan to detect AF early and treat it appropriately.
We cannot forget that hundreds of thousands of people are living with a potential ticking time bomb in their hearts. We must look out for them.
We must support more research to address the questions that remain, including the potential burden of detecting AF incidentally with new smart technologies.
Meanwhile, people with symptoms should not hesitate to seek help. We who work in the NHS want to help all our patients get the treatment they need – those with COVID-19 and those without.
The BHF’s priority also still stands – we will continue to support the 7.4 million people in the UK living with heart and circulatory diseases.