When at rest, the average person's heart beats between 50 and 100 times a minute. But sometimes the mechanisms that regulate the heart's rate and rhythm go awry, leading to irregular heartbeats called arrhythmias. The most common is type is atrial fibrillation (AF), a fast and irregular heartbeat. According to the November 2011 Harvard Men's Health Watch, AF is becoming more common. Treatment can help, and doctors continue to develop new options for people who don't do well with the standard treatments.
The consequences of AF are enormous. AF increases the risk of stroke fivefold and almost doubles the risk of premature death. It can lead to heart failure and angina. And each year it accounts for 400,000 hospital admissions, 5 million office visits, and health care costs of over $6.5 billion.
Although the cause of AF isn't fully understood, there are clear risk factors. Age is an important factor; AF affects nearly 8% of men between 65 and 74 and almost 12% between 75 and 84. AF occurs about 50% more frequently in men than in women. Heredity also plays a role — a third of all people with AF have a family history of the disorder. Other physical conditions that can increase the risk of AF are cardiovascular conditions, lung disorders, and an overactive thyroid. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption (particularly binge drinking), and anger and hostility (in men) all boost the risk of AF.
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