20. “I’m 80 and been in Chronic (persistent/permanent) A-Fib for 3 years. I actually feel somewhat better now than when I had occasional (Paroxysmal) A-Fib. Is it worth trying to get an ablation?”
With Chronic A-Fib of long duration, perhaps not. Although a few centers get very good results when treating Chronic A-Fib even of long duration (the French Bordeaux group achieves an acceptable success rate after 2 ablations), most centers have a success rate of only around 50% for Chronic A-Fib. And although catheter ablation is a low risk procedure, there are still risks.
Many centers won’t ablate patients who are over 80 years old or in Chronic A-Fib for over a year. There is a higher risk of complications in older people, and it is more difficult to ablate Chronic A-Fib. (In Chronic A-Fib there are often multiple spots in the heart producing A-Fib signals. It’s hard to identify and ablate [isolate] them all.)
The Positive Side of being in Chronic A-Fib: Sometimes people feel relieved to be in permanent A-Fib. There’s no longer the fear, uncertainty, and shock of an A-Fib attack. You can adjust your lifestyle to how your heart behaves, because it doesn’t change much. You may be short of breath, somewhat light headed, tired, and unable to work or exercise hard. But you get used to it. You may even feel better than when you had Paroxysmal A-Fib. In addition, an ablation may be only partially successful and have the unwanted consequence of putting you back into Paroxysmal A-Fib.
You still need to take blood thinners to prevent an A-Fib stroke. But if you get the Watchman or Lariat device installed (very low risk), it closes off your Left Atrial Appendage where 95% of A-Fib clots originate. It’s then possible to go off of Coumadin baring other risk factors for stroke.
The Negative Side of being in Chronic A-Fib: The down side of being in Chronic A-Fib is your heart forever and always will not pump properly. Blood flow to your brain and other organs is reduced by about 15%-30%. This can lead to conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s. (If you are a superior athlete like a bicyclist or runner, your exercise may overcome this reduced blood flow.)
A-Fib is a progressive disease. It tends to get worse even in Chronic A-Fib. Your atria expand and stretch. Your ejection fraction diminishes. Chronic A-Fib produces fibrosis and collagen deposits which stiffen the heart and make it less flexible. All this leads to conditions such as Congestive Heart Failure and Cardiomyopathy
But please weigh the above statements carefully (the author is concerned that they may create unwarranted fear). How do you feel? If you don’t feel any symptoms and your doctor says your heart isn’t enlarging and/or developing poor ejection fraction, etc., then there’s no need to rush out to get a Pulmonary Vein Ablation which does involve real risk.
The Bottom Line: You can be cured of Chronic A-Fib, even at your age. But it will take at least 2 ablations. And it won’t be easy finding a doctor to do it. (There is a short list of doctors at Specialists In Persistent/Chronic A-Fib. You need someone with a proven track record in ablating Chronic A-Fib.) However, an ablation is more risky at your age.
On the other hand, you can live in Chronic A-Fib. Many people do. The key to living a satisfying life in Chronic A-Fib may be good rate control. For example, a resting heart rate of around 80 beats per minute with an exercise rate of 110 is very close to that of a normal person. People with good rate control of their Chronic A-Fib report a good quality of life and seem less prone to develop other heart or mental problems.
What this Means to You: Are you happy or content with your quality of life in Chronic A-Fib? If so, then the added hassles and risks of an ablation are probably not worth it for you. Only you (and your doctor) can decide if it’s better to spend your twilight years in a perhaps reduced but satisfactory quality of life.
• Haines, D. “Atrial Fibrillation: New Approaches in Management.” Un. of Virginia multi-media presentation, 1999, p.6.
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• Un. of Utah Health Sciences, Atrial Fibrillation FAQ, What is Atrial Fibrillation, Risks. http://healthsciences.utah.edu/carma/forthepatient/faqs.html, heart weakness, heart attacks, etc.
• Benjamin EJ, et al. Impact of atrial fibrillation on the risk of death: the Framingham Heart Study. Circulation. 1998 Sep 8;98(10):946-52. Last accessed Nov 22, 2014. URL: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/98/10/946.full.
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