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June 2012
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No 'cure' for atrial fibrillation, cardiologist says

By MASON BLANFORD mblanford@paducahsun.com

As a cardiologist specializing in abnormal heart rhythms, Dr. William Wassynger has seen many a case of atrial fibrillation.

Ultimately it boils down to minimizing risk, he said.

"Atrial fibrillation is a serious illness, but its main issue is stroke," said Wassynger, a Lourdes physician board certified in cardiac electrophysiology and cardiology. "There's a very close relation between the two."

Risks are twofold for the chronic disease, which causes irregular and rapid heart rate. While chance of a heart attack can be a legitimate fear, Wassynger said many don't realize stroke is the key concern.

Multiple factors can contribute to the condition, such as hypertension and diabetes, but age is a key component.

"Over half of my patients have it, and the vast majority are older than 60," he said. "It's mainly a disease of the elderly, but I have a handful of younger patients."

However, the disease's diverse symptoms can manifest in any demographic: heart palpitations, chest pains, simple fatigue, or a myriad of other symptoms.

For AF patients, Wassynger said, heart monitors can be worn to identify irregular heart rhythms over time, identifying the condition even for asymptomatic patients. Tests like echocardiograms and electrocardiograms can also be given to determine heart rhythm and rule out other conditions.

A significant association also exists between sleep disorders and heart rhythm problems. Many physicians fail to screen for conditions like sleep apnea, Wassynger said, and once the apnea is treated, then treating atrial fibrillation will be easier.

While Wassynger is cautious to use the word "cure" for atrial fibrillation, much can still be done to prevent irregular heart rhythm.

Eating right, sleeping well, exercise and low blood pressure can all contribute.

"No one's been able to show that atrial fibrillation will never occur again," he said. "I try not to use the word 'cure,' but the vast majority of patients, you can get them better and treat them."

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