Extra Pounds Can Make Your Heart Pound

Losing weight may help control irregular heart rate

scale with feet

A new study, published in the November 17 online edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, says that weight loss can help patients manage symptoms caused by an irregular heart rate.  

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Researchers at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in South Australia studied 150 overweight patients with atrial fibrillation (AF) and found that those who lost 30 lbs. or more had greater improvement in their symptoms than patients who didn’t.

Atrial fibrillation basics

Atrial fibrillation is a condition in which the upper chambers of the heart beat very fast and erratically. Obesity increases your risk for AF, as do previous heart attacks, coronary artery disease and heart valve disorders.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of heart rhythm disorder, with about 1.2 million people in the United States diagnosed with AF in 2010. And the number of people suffering from AF is expected to grow as the population ages.

You might not notice any symptoms early on, but common symptoms of AF that develop later include a feeling that your heart is pounding, or about to leap out of your chest. You might also feel weak, and have shortness of breath and chest pain, among other symptoms.

Once considered a relatively benign condition, AF is now implicated in an increased risk for stroke and heart failure.

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Two groups studied

Researchers followed the participants over a 15-month period. The patients were divided into two groups:

The first followed a medical regimen to control blood pressure and cholesterol levels and also were given low-calorie diets and told to exercise for a specific amount of time.

The second group also received the same medical treatment but was not put on a low-calorie diet or given a specific exercise regimen. This group did receive counseling about healthy eating and lifestyle adjustments.

Weight loss and symptom relief

On average, members of the first group lost about 33 lbs. each. Along with the weight loss, their troubling AF symptoms also abated. Members of the second group lost less weight, on average only 12 lbs. each, and did not experience significant symptom relief.

The patients whose symptoms improved were originally scheduled to undergo surgical ablation to treat their condition. Many of those patients found they no longer needed surgery.

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Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Bruce Lindsay, MD, Section Head, Cardiac Electrophysiology and Pacing at Cleveland Clinic, did not participate in the study, but told Reuters he was not surprised at its findings. “I think there has been some knowledge in the community that obesity is linked to atrial fibrillation.When I see patients who are overweight and I’m talking to them about the options for treatment, I try to make it clear that there are things we can do to help them, but there are other things they can do,” he said.

Discuss your specific risk factors with your doctor.

Joining a weight loss program (such as Weight Watchers) that provides support and focuses on improving lifestyle habits and dietary changes often works best, says Dr. Lindsay.

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