Romantic love, a glimpse of Brad Pitt on the big screen, winning the lottery ... plenty of good things can make your heart skip a beat. But the erratic palpitations of a seriously off-beat ticker are worth avoiding, because they spell big trouble for (surprise!) your brain.
Yes, your brain. Here's how it happens. Out-of-rhythm heartbeats, called atrial fibrillation (AF or Afib for short), make the muscles in your heart's upper chambers (the atria, hence "atrial fib") quiver and flutter instead of steadily pumping blood into the lower chambers. That causes blood to pool in the left atrium, so it can't flow smoothly out of the heart into your blood vessels. And that can encourage blood clots to form. The next strong beat can then sweep those clots to your brain, where they block blood flow, destroying brain tissue and causing a stroke.
In fact, one in 25 men and one in 17 women with Afib experience a stroke; 70 percent of Afib-fueled brain attacks are fatal; 15 percent of North American adults eventually develop Afib; and ... well, the stats go on and on, but the message is clear: You want to do all you can to keep your heart beating regularly. Seventy-five percent of strokes caused by Afib are preventable.
Experts are still tracking down precisely what makes the electrical wiring in your heart go haywire and alter the rhythm of your heartbeats. But we do know this: The same steps that guard against heart disease protect your heart's wiring. Toss in a nifty D-I-Y check that'll have you tapping your toes, a little common sense (particularly if you've already got Afib), and you're going to see big rewards: Here's how:
» Take this early-warning test. Find your pulse at your neck or wrist, then try to tap your foot to the beat for a full minute. If there isn't a regular beat, see your doc for an evaluation of your heart rhythm. Also, watch out for Afib's sneaky signs: chest pain; feeling dizzy, lightheaded or out of breath; and being chronically weak or tired. If you've got any of these symptoms, talk with your doctor.
» Know your risk. Having blood relatives with Afib boosts your risk. So does having high blood pressure, diabetes, a heart murmur, congestive heart failure or an overactive thyroid that hasn't been treated. Taking care of these conditions and pampering your heart with the following strategies is a smart move.
» 1. Feed (and exercise) a healthy heart. You know the drill: Fill your plate with colorful produce (especially green!), 100 percent whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats and fat-free dairy products; go light on the salt; and, avoid all added sugars and sugar syrups. That's a great way to cut your risk for high blood pressure or to control it if you've got it. It also gives you plenty of magnesium, a mineral shown to help your heart keep a steady beat. Add a half-hour walk daily, too. The same strategy can help you sidestep diabetes and lose unwanted weight (or maintain a svelte physique). That's good news, because both boost Afib odds, too.
» 2. Say "no thanks" to that second drink. More than two alcoholic drinks a day can boost your risk.
» 3. At risk? Got Afib? Go easy on caffeine and more. An extra-large latte habit (if you're at risk) could bring on palpitations. Same goes for stimulants, especially energy drinks, diet pills, nicotine, recreational drugs and over-the-counter cold, cough and sinusitis medications that contain pseudoephedrine.
» 4. Follow your doctor's orders. Two out of three people with Afib don't think it's a serious health concern. Be smart and safe by taking medications and following strategies your doc recommends. This may include clot-stopping drugs or even surgery. Add a gentle yoga class if your doctor agrees; this soothing practice is proven to reduce Afib "flare-ups" and boost your mood.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Dr. Mike Roizen is chief medical officer at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. For more information, go to realage.com.