Avoiding atrial fibrillation

How maintaining a healthy weight and other lifestyle habits can help prevent this common heart rhythm disorder.

During a bout of atrial fibrillation, your heart may beat so rapidly, it may feel as though it's going to explode out of your chest. Commonly known as afib, this heart rhythm problem can leave you breathless and lightheaded—or cause no symptoms at all. About 9% of people ages 65 and older have afib, which raises the risk of stroke and other heart-related problems. But there are ways to lower your odds of developing afib—or to reduce its impact if you already have the condition.

Lessen your load

By far, the most important step you can take is to attain and stay at a healthy weight. "We have good evidence from multiple studies showing that people who are overweight have a higher risk of afib than people who are at a healthy weight," says Harvard professor of medicine Dr. Christine Albert, who directs the Center for Arrhythmia Prevention at Brigham and Women's Hospital. And the more you weigh, the higher your risk: people who are overweight have a 20% to 25% higher risk, whereas those who are obese (a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or higher) have a 60% higher risk. (To calculate your BMI, see www.health.harvard.edu/bmi-calculator.)

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »