What you may not know about AFib and stroke

Atman Shah, MD
Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of the heart arrhythmia in the world and will impact an estimated 12 million people in the United States by 2030. Despite being a heart condition, AFib can also affect the brain. As my team and I see every day, people with untreated AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke than people without AFib. That’s why it’s critical that people learn more about the link between AFib and stroke and how to seek treatment.

Why does AFib put someone at risk for stroke?

AFib is a disease that affects the electrical conduction of the heart and causes the heart to beat irregularly. The upper chambers of the heart (atria) beat out of sync with the lower chambers (ventricles). When the heart beats irregularly, clots can form in the part of the heart called the left atrial appendage (LAA). These clots can be ejected from the heart, and in some cases, they can block blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke.

What increases the risk of someone with AFib suffering a stroke?

Factors that increase an AFib patient’s risk of stroke include:

  • Age 65 and over, with increased risk for age 75 and over
  • Assigned female at birth
  • Diabetes
  • Heart failure
  • High blood pressure
  • History of stroke or heart attack
  • Peripheral arterial disease (PAD)

How can stroke from AFib be prevented?

AFib is linked to obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet and regular exercise can reduce the likelihood of developing AFib.

For patients diagnosed with AFib, stroke can be prevented through oral anticoagulants (blood thinners) or through transcatheter closure of the LAA, a procedure which uses a device to seal the LAA and prevent future clots from escaping. This option may be especially beneficial to patients who have bleeding risks and shouldn’t be on anticoagulants.

Do people with AFib need a cardiologist and a neurologist?

If an AFib patient is at high risk of stroke or if they’ve had a stroke, they’ll need care from a neurologist and a cardiologist. At the University of Chicago Medicine Heart-Brain Clinic, every patient is seen by a neurologist and cardiologist at the same visit. Physicians who are experts in their field make treatment recommendations together. This multidisciplinary approach saves patients multiple visits and streamlines communication and coordination between physicians. UChicago Medicine is one of the few health systems in the country that offer this specialized and personalized care.

What else should I know about stroke?

If you or someone you love is living with AFib, know the signs of stroke. Early intervention can minimize the effects of stroke and even save your life. Remember the acronym F.A.S.T.:
F.A.S.T. stroke awareness

Atman P. Shah, MD

Atman P. Shah, MD, is an interventional cardiologist who specializes in minimally invasive, catheter-based techniques. He cares for patients with complex structural heart disease, including congenital heart defects, and performs catheter-based procedures to reduce the risk of stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation.

Learn more about Dr. Shah
Shyam Prabhakaran and patient

Heart-Brain Clinic

The Heart-Brain Clinic has a team of cardiology and neurology specialists who collaborate to diagnose, treat and prevent conditions that impact the heart and brain, such as atrial fibrillation (AFib) or cryptogenic stroke.

Learn more about our clinic.

UChicago Medicine Heart-Brain Clinic