New research from Bupa has found that nearly a third (31%) of people have experienced an irregular heartbeat. This may be caused by atrial fibrillation, which is the most common heart rhythm problem – the lifetime risk for people to be affected by it is one in four – but 62% of people don’t know what it is. Double Olympic gold medallist Tom James (28) was one of those affected. He was diagnosed with the condition at the height of his fitness and it nearly cost him his rowing career. Tom explains “It came as a huge shock to be diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. I had an erratic heartbeat and was feeling incredibly tired and out of breath, but being young and fit, I put it down to a virus. Luckily I was diagnosed and treated quickly.”
Although this serious health condition is common, the Bupa study reveals that a quarter of people would put off booking an appointment to go and see their doctor until they have experienced an abnormal heartbeat at least four times. That is despite most knowing it could lead to an increased risk of heart attack (75%) or stroke (55%).
Richard Schilling, Professor of Cardiology, Barts Health NHS Trust said:
“Atrial fibrillation is a very treatable and manageable condition, but getting diagnosed and treated as early as possible is crucial.
“You are on average five times more likely to have a stroke if atrial fibrillation is left untreated, particularly if you’re older. If people leave it for too long without the right treatment, it becomes increasingly difficult to restore and maintain normal heart rhythm. Therefore people must make it a priority go to the doctor and get referred to a specialist quickly.”
Around 1.5 million people have the condition in the UK and that figure is expected to double by 2050. The research shows that people are generally aware that certain groups of people – those who are overweight or obese, older people and people who do not do enough exercise – are at increased risk of atrial fibrillation. However, it also reveals that there is a low awareness that the condition affects people of all ages and fitness levels, with fewer than one-in-five (17%) knowing that athletes are also at increased risk of the condition.
The study by Bupa also shows many people are concerned about seeing their doctor, with half (50%) saying they would not feel confident enough to know what questions they should ask. To help inform people more, Bupa has launched a free online expert guide (www.bupa.co.uk/af) on atrial fibrillation, which gives everyone easy access to key information about the condition, including what symptoms to look out for, and what questions to ask your doctor.
Double Olympic Gold medallist Tom James explained why fast treatment was so important in his bid to win at the London 2012 Games:
“It was bad timing to get my diagnosis so close to the Games, but I know that if I’d not received expert help and treatment quickly, I wouldn’t have been a gold medal winner at London 2012 – there was certainly a time when I feared that my Olympic rowing career was finished. Luckily I had medical advice quickly available, but people need to know what to look out for and arm themselves with the right information. This should give them the confidence to ask for specialist care and get their heartbeat back to normal.”
Professor Schilling added:
“If people do have concerns that they may have atrial fibrillation, they should go and see their GP.
If they do have atrial fibrillation they will need to see a cardiologist who specialises in arrhythmias. It is important that people are informed about their condition, because we know that people who feel more informed about their choices respond better to treatments and make the right decisions sooner.”
For more information about atrial fibrillation, visit Bupa’s free online guide at: www.bupa.co.uk/af
 All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2013 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 17 – 20 May 2013. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
 You can read the AF report here . For further information from Atrial Fibrillation Association visit their website .
 National Stroke Association – stroke.org