The more you smoke, the greater your risk of developing an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation. A study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that the risk of atrial fibrillation (AF) increased for every cigarette smoked per day.
These results were obtained by analysing data from 29 studies, carried out in Europe, North America, Australia and Japan, involving 677,785 people of whom 39,282 were diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Compared to someone who never smoked:
- smoking 5 cigarettes a day increased the risk of AF by 9%,
- smoking 10 cigarettes a day increased the risk of AF by 17%
- smoking 15 cigarettes a day increased the risk of AF by 25%
- smoking 20 cigarettes a day increased the risk of AF by 32%
- smoking 25 cigarettes a day increased the risk of AF by 39%
- smoking 29 cigarettes a day increased the risk of AF by 45%
Overall, a current smoker had a 32% increased risk of atrial fibrillation, while those who used to smoke but had quit had a 9% increased risk.
In an accompanying press release, the researchers urged, ‘If you smoke, stop smoking and if you don’t smoke, don’t start.’ The good news is that the risk reduced considerably in those who quit.
As most smokers should already be aware, smoking is lethal, with a lifetime smoker losing, on average, ten years of life, and having a 50% chance of dying as a direct result of a smoking-related condition. Smoking damages the circulation and also increases your risk of high blood pressure which, in a double whammy, also increases your risk of atrial fibrillation.
What is atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm disorder, in which the upper chambers of the heart beat very rapidly (often at a rate as high as 160 to 180 beats per minute) and without a regular rhythm. As a result, they can’t pump blood properly into the lower chambers of the heart, and blood can pool and start to clot. If a blood clot forms within the left side of the heart, it can be pumped into the circulation and travel directly to the brain to cause a stroke. It’s estimated that between 20% and 30% of all strokes are associated with atrial fibrillation.
If atrial fibrillation causes a blood clot forms in the right side of the heart, it can be pumped to the lungs to cause a pulmonary embolism, although this is less common.
Symptoms of atrial fibrillation
The number of people with atrial fibrillation is increasing, and one in four middle-aged adults will develop the condition. Most people with AF do not have symptoms initially. If they do occur, you may:
- feel light-headed, dizzy or faint
- experience chest discomfort
- have palpitations (thumping or jumping sensations in the chest)
- get breathless
- seem tired and under the weather
- pass water more often than usual (due to the heart releasing a hormone called atrial natriuretic peptide).
You can check whether or not you have atrial fibrillation by feeling your pulse either at the wrist or the side of your neck. If your pulse is irregular, or unusually fast, you could have atrial fibrillation – see your doctor as soon as possible. Some activity trackers and blood pressure monitors can also alert you if they detect an abnormal heart rhythm. For example, the new Braun ActivScan 9 will alert you to atrial fibrillation, as well as telling you if your blood pressure is too high.
What causes atrial fibrillation?
Risk factors for atrial fibrillation include having coronary heart disease, hypertension, heart valve problems, an overactive thyroid gland, smoking, being overweight, drinking too much alcohol and even too much caffeine, as these all increase strain on the heart.
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