DEAR DR. DONOHUE: At 72 years of age, after a routine visit to my doctor, an ECG revealed that I had atrial fibrillation. The treatment is Coumadin for the rest of my life. Is there something that can be done to correct this situation? – G.G.

Atrial fibrillation, whose incidence increases with age, is the most common heartbeat abnormality. The upper heart chambers, the atria, are not beating; they’re quivering (fibrillating). The lower, pumping heart chambers, the ventricles, beat but they beat irregularly and often rapidly.

Medicines can sometimes restore the normal heartbeat. And sometimes, it’s satisfactory to slow the heart with medicine but let it continue its erratic beating. However, the fibrillating atria still present a danger. Because blood in those chambers is stagnant, blood clots can form. Pieces of those clots can break loose, be swept by the circulation into brain arteries, block blood flow to the area of brain downstream of those blocked arteries and cause its death. That is a stroke, and that is a reason why people with atrial fibrillation are placed on the blood thinner Coumadin.

Shocking the heart with electric current can sometimes restore normal heart rhythm. Shock treatment works best when atrial fibrillation is of recent onset.

Heart doctors can create scars in the heart muscle with a catheter that burns a thin slice of heart tissue. The scars block the electrical bombardment that induces the disorderly heart rhythm. Sometimes a mound of scar tissue positioned around the opening of the blood vessels that bring blood from the lungs to the heart abolishes fibrillation. And there is a surgical procedure, the maze operation, that creates barricades against the wild electrical impulses similar to what the catheter treatment does. Not every fibrillating person is suited for all or any of these procedures.

People who would like more information on fibrillation and other heartbeat abnormalities can order the pamphlet on that topic by writing: Dr. Donohue – No. 107, Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Enclose a check or money order (no cash) for $4.50 U.S./$6.50 Can. with the recipient’s printed name and address. Please allow four weeks for delivery.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I had bad heartburn, and it got so bad that I had to see a doctor for it. Turns out I didn’t have heartburn. I had a heart problem, and I had to have a quadruple bypass. – M.M.

I had your letter printed in order to alert people to the fact that illnesses can fool. They fool doctors as well as patients. Heart disease can cause symptoms that are easily mistaken as being heartburn. Thanks for writing.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My husband and I retired to a Southern state, and we love everything about it – the wonderful weather, the ocean for fishing and the beach for walking. My husband thinks that the salt water is causing him to be dry, inside and out. He is considering relocation for us. Any suggestions? – J.T.

How about writing back and letting me know his symptoms? As you know, there are millions of people who live on or near bodies of salt water and are not the least bit affected by it.

If your husband’s skin is dry, using a moisturizer regularly can keep it moist. He should not dry himself after a bath or shower but only pat himself with a towel and then apply the moisturizer.

If I were your husband, I would wait things out a bit and put the move idea on a far back burner.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Will sleeping in a bra keep my breasts from sagging? I know a woman who sleeps with two bras on, and she claims it keeps her breasts up there. She is in her 70s. – Anon.

Wearing a bra through the night – even two of them – does not strike me as a way to keep breasts from sagging. The sag comes from relaxation of tissues that hold them in place. That is something a bra cannot remedy.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.

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