Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition that causes an irregular heartbeat. A type of atrial fibrillation, known as familial atrial fibrillation, involves a genetic aspect. This means that some people may be at a higher risk of atrial fibrillation due to inheriting genes that relate to uncoordinated electrical activity of the heart.
Atrial fibrillation, or A-fib, refers to a type of arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. It occurs due to the irregular beating of the atrial chambers of the heart and often involves tachycardia, an unusually fast heartbeat. Instead of producing a single, strong contraction, the atrial chambers fibrillate, or quiver, which can result in a rapid heartbeat. If left untreated, it can result in heart failure.
There are different types of A-fib. Familial atrial fibrillation describes a type that is hereditary, which means it is capable of running in families. Evidence highlights some genetic changes that relate to the condition. With further research, screening tests may be able to identify these genes and provide individuals at risk with suitable treatment strategies.
This article discusses the genetic risk factors for atrial fibrillation alongside diagnostic and treatment options.
Familial atrial fibrillation describes an inherited heart condition that can disrupt the heart’s rhythm. An individual may inherit certain gene alterations that may put them at a higher risk of developing the condition. A-fib occurs when there is erratic electrical activity in the atria — the upper chambers of the heart. This results in an irregular response in the lower chambers of the heart called the ventricles, leading to a fast and irregular heartbeat.
A-fib is the
Certain genes may cause A-fib on their own, while other genes may play an epigenetic role. This refers to how certain behaviors and the environment can cause changes that affect the way genes work.
Typically, alterations in these genes impact ion channels in the heart, which maintain the heart’s usual rhythm, or the structure of the heart, which can affect cardiac muscle contractions. However, in many cases, the exact cause is unclear and more research is necessary to clarify the role of genetic factors in the development of familial A-fib.
Some evidence highlights at least
A person typically inherits gene changes that can lead to A-fib in an
In addition to a family history of the condition, individuals with one or more of the following
- noticing a fast or irregular heartbeat
- heart palpitations
- chest pain
- finding it more difficult to exercise
- shortness of breath
Additionally, A-fib may present differently in different people. For example, it may be occasional, only lasting for a few minutes or hours, or it can be persistent.
A healthcare professional can
After, a healthcare professional may request some diagnostic tests. Typically, they will start with an electrocardiogram (EKG) to record the electrical activity of the heart. If more information is necessary, a doctor may also request blood tests to measure for substances in the blood, or an echocardiogram to determine if areas of the heart muscle are not contracting properly.
A doctor may also suggest other tests to help differentiate A-fib from other types of arrhythmia. These can include:
- chest X-rays
- electrophysiology studies
- Holter and event monitors
- loop recorders
- sleep studies
- stress tests
- transesophageal echocardiography
- walking tests
Learn more about different types of heart tests.
Advancements in genetics may mean that clinicians could use genetic testing to identify high risk individuals. With further understanding of the role these genes play in the development of A-fib, they could also use this information to help guide treatment strategies. For example, in a
- Medication: Drug options may include:
- calcium channel blockers
- sodium channel blockers
- potassium channel blockers
- Lifestyle measures: A doctor may recommend heart-healthy changes, which can include:
- maintaining a moderate weight
- performing regular physical activity
- managing stress
- avoiding alcohol and smoking
- making dietary changes
- Surgical or invasive procedures: If other options are ineffective, a doctor may consider procedures such as:
- electrical cardioversion
- a pacemaker
- catheter ablation
- surgical ablation
- plugging off the left atrial appendage
A doctor may also treat a person for an underlying health condition, such as obesity, sleep apnea, or hyperthyroidism, that could raise the risk of A-fib. After a diagnosis of A-fib, the
- rhythm control to help restore usual heart rhythm
- rate control to reduce high heart rates
- preventing blood clots
- managing risk factors for stroke
- preventing additional heart rhythm issues
- preventing heart failure
Evidence highlights a genetic element that can influence a person’s risk of developing atrial fibrillation, which causes an irregular heartbeat. People can inherit genes from their biological parents that may impact the structure or electrical activity of the heart and disrupt its rhythm.
With further research and understanding of the role that these gene changes play in A-fib, health experts may be able to perform genetic screening tests to identify at-risk individuals and provide suitable treatment to prevent the condition.