The New York Times writes today that many so-called ischemic strokes whose causes are unknown are in fact due to a condition known as atrial fibrillation (AF), or “heart flutter”, probably the most common form of abnormal heart rhythm in humans, and one which often goes undiagnosed for years. Dr. David Gladstone, an associate professor in the department of medicine at the University of Toronto and the lead author of one of two recent studies on strokes of unknown origin, says “If more patients with atrial fibrillation can be detected, then more patients can receive appropriate stroke prevention therapy, and the hope is that more strokes, deaths, disability and dementia can be avoided.”
He is, if anything, overly optimistic. My own cardiologist, Prof Thorsten Lewalter of the Isar Heart Center in Munich, estimates that anywhere up to 50 percent of ischemic strokes for which the causes are unknown stem from atrial fibrillation, which calls the „least-known widespread disease“ in the world.
I discovered that I had AF because my heart rate monitor which I wear during running suddenly went crazy, showing heart rates of 200+ (which is absurd in a 64 year-old). He gave me the choice of taking drugs for the rest of my life which would have effectively ended my career as a marathon runner, or to submit to a procedure calls „ablation“ in which a laser or an electrode are moved to the auricle of the heart and used to burn out the nerve ends that produce the tachycardia.
Unfortunately, we waited too long, and I did in fact suffer a mild ischemic stroke, so I know what I’m talking about. However, I happened to be in the clinic for some routine checkups at the time, and I was surrounded by cardiologists, something which I strongly recommend to anybody who plans to have a stroke. I actually received my first shot of blood thinners about one minute after the stroke occured, and I was able to make a full recovery.
And yes, I still run marathons, thank you very much. Lewalter advises anyone who suffers from a „stumbling“ heart to watch this very closely and to go to a specialist if it persists since he or she is potentially under enormous risk of becoming a stroke victim. So take your pulse regularly at least once a day, and don’t hesitate to go to the doctor if your heartbeat keeps acting up!