Caregiving and Atrial Fibrillation
Many people associate cardiovascular disease solely with blocked arteries and heart attacks. However, over five million people suffer with electrical problems of the heart—a complex condition called atrial fibrillation. Most common in the elderly, AFib, as it’s known, comes in various forms; some come and go while some are persistent and even permanent, but they all increase your loved one’s risk of stroke by a terrifying rate of over five-fold.
As a caregiver for someone with AFib, your crucial role comes with extra responsibilities and challenges. Here, AFib specialist Dr. Shephal Doshi, M.D., Director of Cardiac Electrophysiology and Pacing at Providence, Saint John’s Health Center, in Santa Monica, CA shares ways you can provide necessary and tailored support that will improve the patient’s quality of life.
Prescreen your loved ones
Older age is a major risk factor in AFib causing a stroke. But the scary thing is that many people with AFib are unaware they have it because they can’t feel it.
“There’s no preventing a stroke once it happens, and over twenty percent of strokes are caused by atrial fibrillation,” Doshi says. “Prescreen the person you care for by periodically checking his or her pulse. If it’s irregular or unsteady, see a doctor.”
Know and help manage triggers
Especially with paroxysmal (on-and-off) AFib, certain triggers exacerbate the condition and increase the patient’s risk of stroke. These include high blood pressure, sleep apnea, excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption, stress, and poor cardiovascular health.
Keep close tabs on your loved one’s blood pressure, and suggest skipping that nightly glass of wine. “Red wine can help the heart’s plumbing, but not the electrical,” Doshi explains. Additionally, encourage him or her to stay active—go on walks to boost cardio or take a yoga class together, since meditation is proven to help decrease arrhythmia. Ask the patient’s doctor what kind of exercise is appropriate.
Ask questions and discuss options
Many patients aren’t used to asking questions during their medical appointments. However, it’s extremely important to be proactive about an AFib diagnosis. As the caregiver, you can help by acting as an extra voice and set of ears at doctor’s appointments. And extra moral support is always beneficial.
With AFib, understanding all available treatment options is critical to the patient’s well-being. “Blood thinners are extremely important in preventing blood clots in AFib patients, yet one-third of sufferers aren’t taking them,” Doshi says. Some people with the condition can’t tolerate blood thinners because of the subsequent bruising and excessive bleeding; others just stop taking them because of the unfortunate side effects.
If you know your loved one is suffering but tends not to speak up, inform the doctor yourself of his or her issues with blood thinners. This way, you can find another option to lower the chance of stroke—for instance, the Watchman Device is a new atrial appendage closure that was FDA-approved in 2015.
See a specialist
“Caregivers should urge a loved one suffering with AFib to meet with a cardiac electrophysiologist at least once,” Doshi suggests. A professional who specializes in the heart’s electrical problems is best equipped to tailoring treatment to a specific patient’s needs and goals—and thus, bettering your loved one’s quality of living.