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Is It Love… or Atrial Fibrillation?

Photo by Neal Fowler. Used under a Creative Commons attribution license.

With all the candy hearts available in the impulse buy section of your local grocery store this time of year, it can be easy to forget the most important heart of all: not the one you give to someone else, but the one keeping you alive.

February is Heart Month, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada is asking for volunteers to canvas their neighbourhoods, sharing information about heart health and how to prevent heart disease. Canvassing is a good way to get up, get out, and get moving. It’s also a great way to meet your neighbours and make friends. (Or maybe more than friends! If you noticed a certain special somebody huffing and puffing while you dug out from a recent blizzard, now could be the time to step up and introduce yourself!)

If canvassing isn’t for you, there are plenty of other ways to keep your heart healthy. You already know to eat right and exercise, but a regular reminder might be helpful. The Heart and Stroke Foundation also offers He@lthline, a newsletter that can be emailed directly to you with tips on diet and exercise to keep your heart working at its best.

Sometimes, though, heart disease cannot be detected immediately. In the case of atrial fibrillation, or arrhythmia, the heart beats irregularly because the electronic impulses that keep it running are erratic. There are multiple causes for this, including obesity and diabetes, but many people who experience AF don’t even know that they have it. And even if they do notice it, they may not know what to do about it. This is dangerous, because AF causes approximately 25% of all strokes. That’s roughly 70,000 strokes a year. In fact, AF is so common that it’s the leading heart disorder in Australia. There, the cost of stroke is upwards of two billion dollars annually. As a result, scientists are investigating the link between AF and stroke. Says researcher Carlee Schultz at the University of Adelaide:

“It is still not widely understood in the community that patients with atrial fibrillation are at five times greater risk of stroke, because of clots that form within the heart,” Ms Schultz says. “The abnormal beating of the heart associated with AF causes an unusual swirling of blood. This blood pools in the atrium, where blood clots can form.”

Schultz’s research would help doctors understand just exactly how blood platelets become blood clots, and how long those clots remain in the heart before traveling to the brain and causing strokes.

So if you notice your heart racing, experience shortness of breath, or feel dizzy for seemingly no reason, it may be time to talk with your doctor about taking an EKG test for diagnosis. If your doctor is worried, she may send you for an echocardiogram or a stress test on a treadmill. If you’re not diagnosed with AF, that’s great news. But if you’re still feeling dizzy, check your feelings: are you sure you’re not in love?