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Can obesity cause atrial fibrillation?

Did you know that nearly 70 percent of American adults are overweight or obese? While carrying extra weight may not seem like a major health crisis, obesity can put you at risk for certain heart conditions like atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common abnormal heart rhythm. This condition occurs when the upper chambers of the heart beat erratically more than 450 times a minute.

Symptoms of atrial fibrillation include:

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swollen legs

Adults over the age of 70 are more likely to develop atrial fibrillation, but studies show that obesity increases the risk of atrial fibrillation by nearly 40 percent.

“When people are overweight, the pressure inside the main pumping chamber of the heart increases,” says Kirk Laman, D.O., a cardiologist at Piedmont. “That extra force puts pressure on the heart, causing abnormal relaxation and enlargement of the left atrium. This causes scarring of the atrium and leads to an erratic heartbeat.”

If left untreated, atrial fibrillation can lead to the formation of blood clots in the heart, stroke or heart failure.  

What can you do to prevent atrial fibrillation?

Studies have shown that controlling your weight can substantially reduce your risk of atrial fibrillation. To prevent this condition, Dr. Laman recommends the following ways to lose weight:

  • Eat a healthy diet. Focus on fruits and vegetables, high-fiber whole grains, omega-3s and use plant-seed oils. Choose lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Steer clear of trans fats and limit saturated fats.
  • Exercise. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise a week. That’s just 30 minutes a day. Try walking, swimming, hiking, dancing or aerobics.
  • Don’t give up.  “A lot of people throw up their hands and say, ‘Well, I'm always going to be fat,’" says Dr. Laman. “It’s important to remember to just keep trying. Don’t focus on weight loss as much as becoming healthier.”

If you are interested in losing weight, check out more of our fitness and nutrition stories.

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