Atrial fibrillation is a sustained racing heartbeat that can lead to death in older patients. Now for the first time, researchers are learning just how serious this condition in younger women considered otherwise healthy.
Heart patient Judy Kulp knows what an uncontrollable, irregular heartbeat feels like.
"It feels like a middle-school kid who wants to be a drummer in the band but has no sense of rhythm and just wails way," said Kulp.
"In atrial fibrillation, the heartbeat is erratic. The rate is going faster than it should be," said Dr. John McKenzie, White Memorial Medical Center.
McKenzie is a cardiac electrophysiologist. It's well-known that irregular heartbeats can lead to strokes and heart attacks in men and the elderly. Now a new study reveals how it can be deadly in otherwise healthy women in their 40s.
"This study is unique in that it tells us that women are not immune from this risk as well," said McKenzie.
Researchers followed 35,000 participants in the women's health study. They found even in women with very low risk factors for heart disease, those who developed atrial fibrillation had an increased risk of death.
So based on this study, what should women do? Researchers say the data suggest women should do all they can to treat the aggressive risk factors that lead to atrial fibrillation.
"I think the issue is to get it diagnosed, get it recognized and get it treated," said McKenzie.
Risk factors include obesity, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and having type 2 diabetes. Prevention is the key message here, but researchers believe treating "a-fib" will also reduce the risk of death.
Judy Kulp underwent ablation therapy. Surgeons used heat to suppress areas causing the erratic electrical activity. It's made a world of difference.
"I feel fantastic, I haven't had any symptoms," said Kulp. "The difference of not knowing what's going to happen from day to day to feeling great is wonderful."
Researchers also found women who have a form of atrial fibrillation that occurs intermittently did not increase their risk of death.
Heart palpitations don't mean you have atrial fibrillation, but only a doctor can diagnose the condition.
The study is in the Journal of the American Medical Association.