Atrial Fibrillation: Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention

Medically Reviewed by Dr. K on 20 May 2022

Table of Contents:

  1. Atrial Fibrillation 
  2. Common Causes of AF
  3. Risk Factors of AF
  4. Prevention of AF


Atrial Fibrillation

The most common problem with the rate or rhythm of your heart is atrial fibrillation (AF). Disordered signals allow the heart's two upper chambers (the atria) to pump very quickly and out of rhythm, which is the root cause of AF. The heart walls flutter, or fibrillate, when they contract too rapidly.

AF is caused by electrical circuit damage in the heart. Often heart-related disorders are often the cause of this damage. Other factors could be at work in at least one out of every ten cases of AF. 

You will be able to monitor the AF to avoid having an episode even after you've been diagnosed with the disease if you recognise what causes them for you.

Common Causes of AF

Common causes of AF include:

  • Age
  • Genes
  • Heart disease
  • Sick sinus syndrome
  • Heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Lung disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema, or a blood clot in your lung (pulmonary embolism)
  • An overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism)
  • Obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome
  • Sleep apnea
  • Infections caused by a virus


Risk Factors for AF

Age: As you get older, your chances increase, particularly after the age of 60. Part of the reason behind this is that you're more prone to have heart failure and other diseases that can lead to AF.

Genes: AF is a disorder that runs in families. That suggests that a portion of the cause can be traced back to the genetics you inherit from your parents at birth. If anyone in your immediate family has had or had it, you're at a higher risk.

Heart disease: Since AF is a heart condition, it's not surprising that other heart problems increase the chances of getting it, such as:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart valve disease
  • Rheumatic heart disease
  • Heart failure
  • Weakened heart muscle (cardiomyopathy)
  • Heart birth defects
  • Inflamed membrane or sac around the heart (pericarditis)

Sick sinus syndrome: This is not the same as the head's sinuses. The sinus node is a collection of cells that regulates the heart rate. Consider it the heart's natural pacemaker. The following are some of the issues that may contribute to AF:

  • The electrical impulses in your heart misfire.
  • Your heart rhythm changes from rapid to slow.

Heart attack: When the artery that delivers blood to the atria is blocked, atrial tissue may be damaged, resulting in AF. However, the reverse is not true. AF is not associated with heart attacks.

Heart surgery: AF is the most often encountered complication. It occurs in approximately two or three out of every ten people recovering from heart surgery.

High blood pressure: It is the most frequently occurring disorder associated with AF. It can enlarge the atria, or upper chambers of the heart, making it function harder.

Lung disease: This includes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, and a pulmonary blood clot (pulmonary embolism). COPD, in particular, is often associated with hypertension, heart failure, ventricle disorders, and other conditions that contribute to AF, such as:

  • Low blood oxygen saturation and elevated carbon dioxide levels
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Cardiac autonomic dysfunction occurs when the autonomic nervous system fails to regulate your heartbeat. It may get out of sync in lung disease.
  • Medications inhaled that increase your heart rate

An overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism): It causes increased metabolism and increased heart rate.

Obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome: These disorders are not only often related to hypertension, but they can also make it more difficult for your heart to empty. They can trigger other physical changes that increase the chances of developing atrial fibrillation.

Sleep apnea: When you're shocked awake by a lack of oxygen, it puts a mechanical strain on your heart and causes chemical changes. Furthermore, sleep apnea can lead to conditions like high blood pressure and obesity, all of which increase the risk of AF.

Infections caused by a virus: Your heart may be affected as a result of the inflammation.

Medication: According to research, people who take heavy doses of steroids for asthma or other disorders are more likely to develop AF. If your chances are higher anyway, this treatment can cause an episode. Over-the-counter cold drugs containing caffeine or other ingredients that raise the heart rate are also dangerous.

Alcohol: Binge drinking is a trigger for certain people. However, for some people, even a small amount can trigger AF.

Stimulants: Caffeine, cigarettes, and other stimulants have been known to trigger AF. Caffeine would probably have a stronger effect on you if you don't drink it regularly.

Stress and worry: When you're under a lot of stress or exhausted, it's possible that you'll have an episode or that the symptoms will get worse.


Prevention of AF

Some AF risk factors are outside of control, such as age and genetics. A healthy lifestyle, on the other hand, will help protect against AF and other forms of heart disease. You should take the following steps:

  • Stop smoking.
  • Maintain a healthy blood pressure.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight (BMI). (It also helps prevent sleep apnea, which is another cause of AF.)
  • Keep a heart-healthy diet that is rich in plant-based ingredients and low in saturated fat.
  • Get exercise on a regular basis. Consult the doctor to see how much is enough for you.


Referenced on 20/4/2021

  1. University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics: “Atrial Fibrillation: Frequently Asked Questions.”
  2. Methodist DeBakey Cardiovascular Journal: “Atrial Fibrillation and Hypertension: Mechanistic, Epidemiologic, and Treatment Parallels.”
  3. UpToDate: “Arrhythmias in COPD.”
  4. Mayo Clinic: “Enlarged heart,” “Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid),” “Atrial Fibrillation Won't Cause Heart Attack but Can Lead to Other Serious Complications.”
  5. Journal of the American Heart Association: “Concomitant Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome Add to the Atrial Arrhythmogenic Phenotype in Male Hypertensive Rats.”
  6. Heart Rhythm Society: “Atrial Fibrillation and Sleep Apnea: What You Need to Know,” “Sick Sinus Syndrome.”
  7. Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine: “Is there a link between atrial fibrillation and certain bacterial infections?”
  8. Texas Heart Institute: “Atrial Fibrillation.”
  9. Merck Manual: “Atrial Fibrillation and Atrial Flutter."
  10. Cleveland Clinic: “What is Atrial Fibrillation?"
  11. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: “Who is at Risk for Atrial Fibrillation?" “What Causes Atrial Fibrillation?" and “What is Atrial Fibrillation?"
  12. American Heart Association/American Stroke Association: “When the Beat is Off: Atrial Fibrillation."
  13. “Diabetes associated with risk of atrial fibrillation."
  14. The Lancet: “Predicting atrial fibrillation – Authors' reply."
  15. Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Atrial Fibrillation: Prevention, Treatment and Research."

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