Millions of women and men in the U.S. have atrial fibrillation (AFib), a condition that causes the heart to beat too slowly, too quickly or irregularly. But the disease affects women differently than men, says Henry Ford cardiologist and electrophysiology specialist Gurjit Singh, M.D.
“Atrial fibrillation is more common in men than in women. But because women tend to live longer than men, there are more women living with AFib,” he says.
When it comes to AFib, women also have different risk factors, symptoms and even treatment recommendations at times. If you’re a woman at risk of this common condition, knowing those distinctions can help you stay healthy.
Atrial Fibrillation Risk Factors
Age is the main risk factor for atrial fibrillation. Though AFib can be diagnosed at any age, it’s much more common after age 65. “But women tend to be diagnosed at even older ages than men,” Dr. Singh explains.
There are also differences in the conditions that increase the risk of women and men developing a heart rhythm disorder:
- In women, high blood pressure and heart valve disease are more likely to lead to AFib.
- In men, coronary artery disease and previous heart attack are more common risk factors for AFib.
AFib Symptoms In Women
For both sexes, typical symptoms of AFib include:
- Racing heart
- Palpitations (a feeling that your heart is fluttering or skipping a beat)
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
Yet men and women often experience AFib differently.
- Atypical symptoms: Women are more likely than men to experience atypical (or less common) symptoms, such as fatigue and weakness.
- Frequency and duration of episodes: Women tend to have more frequent and longer-lasting AFib episodes than men.
- Stroke risk and severity: Women with AFib may be at higher stroke risk than men. And when women have a stroke, it tends to be more severe.
AFib Treatments: What Women Should Know
There are several treatments for AFib, including medications and surgical procedures. But here, too, there are differences that women should be aware of.
People with AFib often take blood-thinning medications to prevent strokes. But traditional medicines used for this purpose are less effective at preventing strokes in women.
“Fortunately, newer medications are effective in both women and men,” Dr. Singh says.
People may take medications to suppress AFib. But these medications can sometimes have an adverse effect on the heart’s electical activity. In women, this treatment is more likely to trigger heart rate problems in the bottom chambers of the heart.
This procedure targets the heart tissue that generates the irregular heart rhythm.
Women undergo ablation less often than men. This may be because the symptoms women may experience, such as fatigue and weakness, are easier to dismiss than symptoms like chest pain. Women tend not to discuss these vague symptoms with their doctors. As a result, doctors may misdiagnose the condition.
“When women do get ablation, they tend to have had AFib for a longer time,” Dr. Singh says. “As a result, women often need more complex AFib procedures.”
Staying Healthy With AFib
AFib isn’t something anyone should ignore. But women, in particular, should pay close attention to the signs and symptoms. “Women often have worse outcomes than men. They have more frequent and longer-lasting episodes of AFib, and they are more likely to have severe strokes,” Dr. Singh says.
That doesn’t mean women should panic. After diagnosis, AFib can be managed with proper treatment. “The lesson is that women shouldn’t ignore any of their symptoms, and they should take AFib seriously even at the early stages,” Dr. Singh says.
Dr. Gurjit Singh is a cardiologist and electrophysiology specialist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center - Fairlane.