Why Diabetes Makes Atrial Fibrillation Worse
Diabetes is a chronic metabolic disease that causes your blood glucose (sugar) levels to be too high. Over time, high glucose levels can damage your body, affecting organs like your heart and how efficiently it beats. Atrial fibrillation, afib for short, is a fairly common heart condition that results in an irregular heartbeat—an arrhythmia. Between 2.7 and 6.1 million people in the United States have atrial fibrillation.
Your heart rhythm is controlled by electrical impulses that pass through the walls of the heart’s four chambers. The two upper chambers, the atria, are responsible for collecting the blood and pumping it into the adjoining chambers, the ventricles. Normally, an electrical impulse originates in one area of the atria to stimulate the muscles to push the blood along. With atrial fibrillation, the electrical impulses are triggered from more than one area, resulting in disorganized impulses going through the heart. The rapid and irregular heartbeat doesn’t allow your heart to pump effectively, putting you at risk for a stroke or heart failure.
Diabetes, particularly type 2 diabetes, is a risk factor for heart disease and other conditions like atrial fibrillation. The longer you have diabetes, the higher the risk. Poorly controlled or uncontrolled diabetes increases this risk even more. Studies show that having diabetes can increase your risk of afib by up to 40%. The longer you have diabetes, the higher it goes.
Doctors aren’t sure why diabetes is such an important risk factor for atrial fibrillation. It may be due to risk factors for afib that are common to diabetes: high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and obesity. Another theory is wildly fluctuating blood glucose levels may damage the myocardium, the muscle tissue of the heart. This may have an effect on how the electrical impulses are discharged.
Diabetes not only increases your risk of developing atrial fibrillation, it also can worsen it. If you have diabetes and atrial fibrillation, your symptoms may be worse than someone who has atrial fibrillation without diabetes. The symptoms for atrial fibrillation include:
Palpitations, a pounding feeling in your chest—often irregular and racing
Weakness and lower tolerance for exercise
Fatigue, or feeling tired all the time
Lightheadedness or dizziness
The symptoms of afib can be occasional, but they can also be persistent, lasting over a long period. You may also have permanent atrial fibrillation, which means the heart rhythm is permanently abnormal and prompt medical intervention is necessary to restore a normal heart rate and rhythm.
If you feel any atrial fibrillation symptoms, your doctor may refer you to a cardiologist for testing. Afib can lead to heart failure or stroke. If your symptoms are occasional and are not having an impact on your life, and you have no other signs of heart disease, your cardiologist may opt for watchful waiting. In this case, you are monitored and watched for any signs of worsening.
If you don’t have any signs of afib, your diabetes team may still monitor you for problems related to your heart. This way, if any problems are detected, they may be in the early stages and easier to treat.