Is Atrial Fibrillation Dangerous? Symptoms, Prevention, & Barry Manilow’s Heart

Barry Manilow has written many songs about young lovers, star-crossed or not, with butterflies in their stomachs and hearts a-flutter. When they first meet, they swoon, and their hearts skip a beat. Listening to these songs and remembering your own loves, so does yours.

But when the famous pop music singer-songwriter’s own heart skipped a beat in 1996, it wasn’t a laughing matter.

After all, although Manilow, then 54, still showed no signs of slowing down and continued to sell millions of albums and perform in hundreds of concerts every year, he was beyond the prime of his life. He was at the age when most people begin to feel the aches and pains of diseases that are bound to develop from the wear and tear of daily life.

“I was driving home and I felt my heart skip a beat. Well, your heart skipping a beat doesn’t sound like it’s anything serious, so I didn’t pay much attention to it. And then it went blump-bla-bla-blump,” Manilow told CBSNews in October 2011. “And it got crazier and crazier, I felt like there was a fish flopping around in my chest.”

“I called my doctor and said ‘What is this?’ He said ‘Come on in,’ and he knew exactly what it was. It was atrial fibrillation,” Manilow says, he added. “I think it did scare me half to death because, you know, ‘Really my heart, there’s something wrong with my heart?’ But he said not to worry about (it), ‘It’s really good that you called us because that’s what you’ve got to do.’”

What is atrial fibrillation?
Atrial Fibrillation (AF) or A-fib occurs when the heart’s upper chambers faster than the lower chambers, causing an irregular, racing heartbeat.

Mostly an ailment of people over 50 years old, AF affects about 2.2 million people in the United States and 4.5 million in the European Union, and the number is rising in developed countries — but mainly because a higher quality of life is helping people live longer and the proportion of elderly is growing.

While it’s a manageable condition, A-fib can be dangerous because it can cause blood to pool in the heart’s upper chamber, the atria, and when this happens, a blood clot can form, break off and travel to the brain, causing a stroke. Strokes from AF account for almost one fourth of all ischemic strokes, heart doctors say.

AF also makes the heart work harder, with the ventricles beating very fast but unable to completely fill with blood. When the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs, heart failure occurs.

“Stroke and heart failure are the two major complications of AF,” says Dr. Holly Phillips, Prevention magazine Contributing Editor, in an interview on CBS News’ Early Show about the heart condition Manilow and so many others have.

People who have AF may not feel symptoms. But when A-fib isn’t noticed, it can increase the risk of stroke, and in some people, AF can cause heart failure when the heart rhythm is very rapid.

“This is why early diagnosis is key,” says Dr. Phillips.

If you are over 50 and have some major risk factors such as congenital heart defects, rheumatic heart disease, coronary heart disease (CHD) and other heart ailments, lung disease or hyperthyroidism and are obese or diabetic or have metabolic syndrome, it’s best to monitor yourself for the symptoms of A-fib:

  • Palpitations (feelings that your heart is skipping a beat, fluttering, or beating too hard or fast)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness or problems exercising
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Confusion

Fatigue and shortness of breath are common symptoms of heart failure, caused by a buildup of fluid in the lungs. Edema or fluid building up in the feet, ankles and legs can also be a sign of heart failure.