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Making Sense of Atrial Fibrillation: What Do People of Color Need to Know?

Making Sense of Atrial Fibrillation: What Do People of Color Need to Know?

This article is for people of color who may be at risk for atrial fibrillation (AF), or for anyone who wants to learn more about AF. The goal of this patient education activity is to help you understand how race/ethnicity may impact your risk for stroke caused by AF.

You will learn about:

  • What AF is and how it is linked to stroke 

  • Who can get AF

  • How race/ethnicity may impact your risk for stroke

  • How treatment for AF can help prevent stroke 

  • Questions to ask your doctor

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What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation, or AF, is when your heart has an abnormal rhythm. This happens because the electrical signals in your heart are not functioning correctly. This affects how your heart beats and how blood travels through your heart and body.

When blood doesn't flow like it should, blood clots can form in the blood vessels of your heart and body. When you have AF, a blood clot can travel from the heart to the brain and cause a stroke.

Who Can Get AF?

Risk factors, or things that can increase your chances of having AF, include:

  • Being 65 years of age or older

  • Male gender

  • Smoking

  • Diabetes

  • High blood pressure

  • Being overweight or obese

  • Race/ethnicity

  • Genetics (traits you inherit from your parents), such as being of European ancestry

  • Sleep apnea

  • Heart failure

  • Kidney disease

  • Heart disease, or a previous heart attack

  • Thyroid disease

Why Is Knowing About AF and Stroke Important for People of Color?

People of color often have 1 or more risk factors for AF. For example, studies have shown that Black people tend to have a higher rate of high blood pressure and obesity compared to people of other races, which increases the risk for having AF.

AF can also lead to other health problems such as having:

  • A stroke

  • Heart failure

  • Heart disease

  • Difficulty doing daily activities

Most people with AF do not have symptoms. Some may have symptoms such as feeling like your heart is beating really fast, feeling low in energy, dizziness, or shortness of breath.

Why Is Knowing About AF and Stroke Important for People of Color? (cont)

Stroke and complications from AF can be more severe for people of color, especially for Black people. But unfortunately, AF is frequently not diagnosed enough in people of color so they may not be getting the treatment they need to prevent a stroke from happening.

It's important for you to have a discussion with your doctor about your risk factors for AF and stroke and if you are experiencing any symptoms of AF.

A Healthy Lifestyle Can Help

Having a healthy lifestyle is important to help manage certain risk factors for AF and to help prevent stroke caused by AF. This can include:

  • Have a healthy diet that is low in saturated fats, trans fat, cholesterol, and salt, and is high in fiber

  • Maintain a healthy weight and try moderate-intensity physical activity, such as walking fast for about 30 minutes a day

  • Quit smoking and limit alcohol and caffeine since these can trigger abnormal heart rhythms

  • Lower your stress by getting enough sleep, exercise, and practicing relaxation techniques

  • Take all medicines as directed for any health conditions you may have, such as high cholesterol or diabetes

Ask your doctor about ways to help stay healthy that may be right for you.

Treatment for AF

To help reset your heart back to normal rhythm, your doctor may recommend a procedure, such as:

  • Cardioversion, a procedure where small electric shocks are sent to your heart through electrodes applied on your chest. It is also possible to do cardioversion with medicines

  • Ablation, a procedure that delivers radiofrequency that heats small areas of heart tissue to change how the electrical signals move through the heart 

After either of these procedures, you may still need to take medicines to maintain a normal heart rhythm.

A person with AF getting a cardioversion procedure done to reset their heart back to normal rhythm. 

Preventing Stroke Caused by AF

To help prevent a stroke when you have AF, your doctor may recommend medicines or a procedure, such as:

  • Anticoagulants, a type of medicine that help prevent blood clots from forming, which can then help prevent a stroke. Warfarin is an anticoagulant that often requires regular blood tests. Other anticoagulants -- such as apixaban, dabigatran, edoxaban, and rivaroxaban -- do not require regular blood tests. All anticoagulants can come with a risk of side effects, including possible bleeding

  • Left atrial appendage closure, a procedure that your doctor might recommend if you cannot take an anticoagulant. In this procedure, a device is placed in the upper left heart chamber to help lower the risk of blood clots

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

At your next visit, try asking your doctor these questions about AF and stroke: 

  • As a person of color, what should I know about AF and stroke?

  • What can I do to lower my risk for stroke?

  • What treatments are available and what are their side effects?

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You have successfully completed the program Making Sense of Atrial Fibrillation: What Do People of Color Need to Know?

View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful:

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Authors and Disclosures

Clinician Reviewer

Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Associate Director, Content Development, Medscape, LLC.

Disclosure: Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Asha P. Gupta, PharmD, RPh

Associate Medical Education Director, Medscape, LLC.

Disclosure: Asha P. Gupta, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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