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Heart Foundation warns 20,000 Kiwis may be unaware they have atrial fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Week 18-24 September, kicks off today with a warning from the Heart Foundation that up to 20,000 Kiwis may be unaware they have the condition, an irregular heart rhythm causing poor blood flow and increasing the risk of stroke.

Nikki Tod and her family

Nikki Tod (48), pictured with husband Mark, son Sam and daughter Alex, was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation while pregnant with Sam.

Currently around 80,000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AF). It can strike adults of any age, but about four in every 100 Kiwis aged over 65 has AF, making it the most common type of irregular heart rhythm (known as arrhythmia). 

Nikki Tod’s life is punctuated by the challenges of her AF which can bring on sudden ‘attacks’ that send her heart racing.

“It just happens really suddenly for no reason. I start to feel heavy, like I am walking through mud. Then, I just can’t move. I have to sit down and my blood pressure goes right down but my heart beats really fast,” says the 48-year-old.

Her most serious ‘attacks’ result in her being rushed to hospital to undergo a medical procedure called cardioversion to reset her heart back to normal rhythm.

Heart Foundation Medical Director Gerry Devlin is encouraging people like Nikki who are living with, or those who may be at risk of, AF to refer to the Foundation’s specialised AF website and resources, and seek medical advice if concerned.

“Long-term conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, valve problems and blocked arteries, can affect the size and function of the heart, and increase a person’s risk of developing AF.”

Symptoms of AF include feeling breathless, dizziness or feeling faint, racing heart, tiredness, chest discomfort and difficulty exercising. Lots of people with AF have minimal, if any, symptoms. In addition to possible symptoms the risk of stroke may also be increased

“The good news is that nearly 80% of strokes in people with AF can be prevented by blood thinning medication and the burden of symptoms reduced by making some lifestyle changes. As people may not have symptoms for some time despite having the condition, early detection is important,” says Devlin.

The Heart Foundation funds AF research, with the most recent project about to be undertaken by Dr Katrina Poppe from the University of Auckland on AF detection.

Poppe’s research aims to find out how much, and what type, of structural heart disease is present in New Zealanders with AF. She also wants to assess the feasibility of doing echo scans in the community using a small portable machine.

The information Poppe gathers is expected to guide doctors and the health system in improved management of AF and the conditions which commonly are associated with it . It could also help with prioritising who is referred on for specialist cardiac services and assessing future options for providing an outreach echocardiography service to high-risk communities.

Devlin says the Foundation actively promotes AF awareness and support through its website and resources, as well as specific support sessions for people with AF and their families. These are held in local communities around New Zealand during AF week and throughout the year. 

Find local support sessions