When AFib Strikes Early in Life

While heart problems like AFib are often associated with aging, the truth is AFib can affect people at any point in life—even if you’re young. Read on to understand why it happens and the challenges surrounding AFib in young adults.

Explaining heart rhythm problems in young people

Heart problems are often tied to aging. Your risk of several types of cardiovascular events, including atrial fibrillation, climbs higher as you approach middle age. But while atrial fibrillation or AFib risk does go up as you age, this is one heart disorder that could hit at any point in life.

Although the majority of AFib diagnoses happen over the age of 60, more and more young people – even teenagers and 20-somethings – are suffering from heart conditions. This trend could be partly traced to better diagnostic tools and more awareness, but whatever the reason, it’s important to know the facts and challenges surrounding an AFib diagnosis in young adults.

5 causes of AFib in young people

Wear and tear on the heart adds up over the years, which can lead to coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and heart attacks – some of the most common causes of AFib. However, there are often different reasons behind an early AFib diagnosis, like congenital defects, unhealthy habits, and other illnesses.

It can be especially difficult to uncover the root cause of AFib in young people, but these are a few of the most commonly detected sources:

1. Stress. Stress is a major trigger of many conditions. Experts agree that it can have a direct and severe impact on AFib. Of course, stress comes in different packages at different stages of life, and for young people, the mix of school, social dynamics, and future planning can bring an overwhelming dose of stress.

How does stress lead to AFib? The stress response can activate the heart, jumpstarting electrical signals and encouraging AFib symptoms in those prone to them. Both mental and physical stress can cause this response, and in either case, you may need behavioral treatment as well as medication to resolve the issue.

2. Mineral imbalance.
A fine balance of minerals, vitamins, water, and calories helps your body to function well. Unfortunately, it’s relatively easy to let your magnesium, calcium, potassium, and hydration levels lag – and that can set the stage for AFib.

It’s unfair to label young people as poor eaters – many consume a wholesome, balanced diet that serves their physical and mental health. However, many other young people subscribe to a processed food diet, which is usually deficient in many important nutrients.

3. Infection.
Pericarditis, an infection that can develop around the heart membrane, could lead to AFib, but so could other bacterial infections that aren’t directly affecting the heart. Research has found that the level of C-reactive protein, an important marker of inflammation, is measurably higher in people with AFib.

Dental infection or disease could also cause trouble. You may have heard that gum disease increases your risk of some cardiovascular disease, but a recent study turned up a link between periodontal health and AFib, too. Experts suggest regular scaling to keep the inflammation down and mitigate your risk of heart rhythm problems.

4. Drug abuse.
Illicit and commonly-prescribed drugs can trigger AFib, whether or not you have a pre-existing heart disorder. Stimulants are more often to blame, like nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. Doctors have also discovered that opioid use can lead to heart rhythm irregularities, and given that more teenagers and young adults are misusing prescribed opioids, this poses a grave danger.

5. Comorbidities.
Congenital defects could cause AFib to manifest earlier in life, as can other metabolic disorders, like diabetes. Hypertension, hyperthyroidism, and pulmonary embolism could also be at the root of the problem. For young people who suspect or know they have AFib, it’s important to work closely with your doctor to conduct a thorough examination of your medical history and physical health, in order to uncover any other illnesses that could be complicating matters.

Understanding Lone AFib

When atrial fibrillation develops before the age of 60 and without any related conditions, it’s known as lone AFib. In some cases, lone AFib is associated with a thyroid disorder, viral infections, or stimulant use, or it can be traced to family history. However, in many other cases, there’s simply no clear explanation for early-onset lone AFib.

Your doctor might first want to rule out factors like extreme exercise and sleep apnea – sometimes these are missed in the initial investigation. But even as diagnostic technology advances, little is known about why lone AFib happens. Fortunately for some, a course of medication can eliminate the AFib symptoms; for others, symptoms could come back, sometimes permanently.

Anyone under 60 who experiences AFib symptoms like palpitations, shortness of breath, or dizziness needs to visit a doctor. It can be tempting to ignore the discomfort, especially if it’s mild and you don’t have any other health problems, but the sooner you can start treatment for AFib, the better your chances of preventing it from getting worse.