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Stroke is a big danger from atrial fibrillation, doctors say.

The number of people in the U.S. that have the heart condition atrial fibrillation is about the same as the combined number of residents of Chicago and Houston, and as the population ages, this number will likely increase.

Dr. Fawaz Alhumaid, a heart rhythm specialist and the director of arrhythmia services at Adventist Medical Center, estimates that about 5 million people in the U.S. have AFib.

COURTESY GRAPHIC - AFib is caused when the normal electrical system in the heart starts getting out of rhythm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reckons that only 2 percent of people under 65 years old have AFib, but that rises to 9 percent in the 65 and older crowd.

AFib is a quivering or shuddering of the heart or an irregular heartbeat. "It can come or go or be persistent," Alhumaid said. It happens when the two upper chambers of the heart get off beat and then blood doesn't flow as well to the lower chambers, or ventricles, of the heart.

Although some people have very pronounced symptoms, others just experience mild ones. "It's not uncommon that people with Afib go months, even years, undiagnosed," he said.

The most common symptom is the feeling of fluttering of the heart or palpitations. Alhumaid said other symptoms can include feeling light-headed or dizzy or experiencing a drop in energy levels. There can also be shortness of breath or, in some cases, chest pain.

There are some risk factors for AFib that can be controlled and some that can't. Advancing age is the main risk factor, and of course, try as we might, we can't turn back the clock.

Alhumaid said other risk factors include cardiac conditions such as heart valve problems, prior heart surgeries and breathing conditions such as sleep apnea. The CDC also lists other risk factors including high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and heavy alcohol use.

If you or someone you know has had symptoms of AFib, it is important to get medical attention, Alhmaid said. AFib can lead to conditions that are very dangerous such as blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other complications.

The CDC estimates AFib increases the risk of stroke by four to five times and those strokes can be more severe than strokes from other causes.

The CDC said more than 750,000 hospitalizations happen each year because of AFib and it costs the U.S. about $6 billion.

"It is important to have routine visits with your primary care physician, because AFib can be asymptomatic," Alhumaid said.

AFib is disconcerting, but can be treated and managed and Afib patients can lead normal lives,

Alhumaid said. If AFib is suspected, doctors will do several tests to confirm.

The treatment aims to control the heart's rhythm and prevent blood clots. "A blood thinner may be recommended," Alhumaid said, because the blood isn't pushed out of the heart properly with AFib and it may be likelier to clot.

In addition the doctor may prescribe medication that reboots the heart's electrical impulses or "controls the heart rate or suppresses the rate to keep it in normal rhythm."

Medication works for many patients, but for those still having AFib issues, there are several types of surgery that can be used. Not everyone is a good candidate for surgery, however.

Once the condition is under control, most folks with AFib can resume their normal routines. Although Alhumid warns that the blood thinners increase the risk of bleeding, so some may want to give up dangerous sports or risky activities.

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