What you need to know about Atrial Fibrillation and Stroke Prevention

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is the most common heart rhythm irregularity (arrhythmia) in Australia. 2% of the population have AF, as we age the risk of developing AF increases, around 10% of over 75-year-olds have AF.

When you have AF your heart beats fast and irregularly.

There are several conditions and lifestyle factors that increase your risk of developing AF:


  • High Blood Pressure
  • Coronary Artery Disease
  • Valvular Heart Disease
  • Thyroid Dysfunction
  • Diabetes
  • Sleep Apnoea
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol intake

Stroke in Australia

Stoke is one of Australia’s biggest killers, responsible for more deaths than breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. It is estimated that if current trends continue one Australia every 10 minutes will experience a stroke by 2050.

This incidence of stroke doesn’t need to follow this trend, if we take simple strategies today about 80% of strokes could be prevented.

There are several risk factors increasing your risk of experiencing a stroke in your lifetime, a significant risk factor is a diagnosis of Atrial Fibrillation (AF). AF is responsible for about one in four strokes. Strokes caused by AF tend to be more severe and are more likely to result in death than stroke from other causes.

How do I know if I have AF?

AF can vairy in severity, ranging from experiencing no symptoms, short episodes of symptoms through to daily symptoms including:

  • Palpitations – feeling of a racing or pounding heart
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Chest pain
  • Light-headedness

To get a diagnosis your doctor needs to capture an electrical reading of your heart while you are experiencing AF.

If you are experiencing the symptoms listed above, don’t delay, speak to your GP about your symptoms. They might check your pulse or examine your heartbeat using an ECG, holter monitor, or if your symptoms occur every once in a while they may refer you for a loop recorder. If you wear a fitness tracker your watch may detect AF, these readings can help your GP or the team at SouthWest Cardiovascular to get a clear diagnosis for you.

Up to 40% of people with AF don’t experience any symptoms, if you are over 65 talk to your GP about a pulse check and an ECG to screen for AF.

How does AF increase your risk of experiencing a stroke?

During a normal heartbeat blood is pumped in and out of your heart regularly, with all four chambers of your heart emptying during each beat.

If you have atrial fibrillation the top chambers of your heart, the atria, beat fast and out of rhythm with the lower chambers of your heart, the ventricles.

This irregular rhythm stops blood moving smoothly through your heart and the chambers from emptying as normal.
When blood is not pumped normally from the heart it can lead to you developing a clot. This clot can then be pushed out of your heart and travel into the brain, where it may cause a stroke.

What can I do to reduce my stroke risk with AF?

  • Manage your modifiable CV risk factors, such as maintaining a healthy weight, blood pressure, reduce alcohol intake, manage diabetes better and get tested for sleep apnoea if indicated.


  • Anticoagulation – one of the main treatment aims in patients with AF is to reduce the lifetime risk of stroke with medication that thins your blood. These medications reduce the likelihood of a clot forming when your heart is beating irregularly. There are two main types of anticoagulants available, direct oral anticoagulants (DOACs) these are taken daily and require no regular monitoring or warfarin which requires regular blood tests to maintain correct levels. Anticoagulation is a lifelong treatment requirement after your AF diagnosis but significantly reduces your changes of experiencing a stroke when taken every day.

Don’t delay

If you have AF and are concerned about your stroke risk or you are concerned that you may have symptoms of AF speak to your GP.