Up to 6.1 million Americans have atrial fibrillation (AF), an irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, heart failure and increased risk for death from cardiovascular causes. Having AF quintuples risk for stroke and doubles it for heart attack or dementia. Although early detection and treatment can help save lives, this dangerous disorder often goes undiagnosed until the patient has suffered serious complications, such as a stroke.

AF, which is most common in older adults, is potentially preventable, often with simple lifestyle changes. Discuss your risk for AF with your medical provider and ask about a simple blood test that checks for a genetic variant that greatly increases the likelihood of developing AF.

Here’s a closer look at the test, key BaleDoneen Method takeaways, and tips on preventing AF.

What does the blood test check for?

Available at medical labs all over the U.S. if ordered by a medical provider, the blood test checks to see if you are a carrier of the 4q25 genetic variant. Compared to noncarriers of this gene, those who have it are at 140% higher risk for AF and 130% higher risk for strokes caused by blood clots originating in heart arteries (cardiothrombotic stroke). About one in three people carry the 4q25 genetic variant.

Who should get this genetic test?

Based on recent studies, the BaleDoneen Method recommends the test for patients with any of these red flags for increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity and/or poor cardiovascular fitness
  • A resting heart rate above 84 beats per minute
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • High blood pressure
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Low levels of magnesium and/or potassium
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Kidney disease
  • A family history of AF
  • Use of alendronate (a medication for osteoporosis sold under such brand names as Fosamax and Binosto)
  • Having an ischemic (clot-caused) stroke, particularly if the cause was unclear
  • Advanced age (AF is most common in people ages 65 and older)

What can I do to reduce my risk for getting atrial fibrillation?

The same strategies that help keep your heart healthy can also reduce your risk for AF, such as exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding all nicotine use or exposure, and managing high blood pressure. Reducing your systolic reading (the top number) below 130 mmHG has been shown to cut risk for AF by 30%, compared to a reading above 142 mmHG. For people with particularly high risk for atrial fibrillation, medications may be advised, along with lifestyle modification.

In a recent study of older adults, those with the highest levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in their blood had a 39% lower rate of AF, compared to people the same age with the lowest levels. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in oily fish (such as salmon, tuna, lake trout, sardines and herring), nuts, flax seeds, vegetable oils and leafy green vegetables. If your levels of Omega-3 are low, ask your medical provider if a supplement is appropriate for you.

In another recent study of adults age 55 and older, those who followed a Mediterranean diet that included 50 grams (about 4 teaspoons) of extra-virgin olive oil daily had a 38% reduction in their rate of AF, compared to a control group. The BaleDoneen Method recommends a diet based on your DNA as one of the best ways to reduce your risk for heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular events.

Studies vary about the effects of drinking coffee, with most research finding that a daily intake of two to three cups is safe and either neutral or beneficial in protecting against AF and stroke. Coffee consumption is also linked to lower risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and depression in many studies.

However, some people carry a variant of the CYP1A2 gene that makes the body metabolize caffeine slowly. In this group, drinking coffee may be harmful to heart health. For example, a study of moderate and heavy drinkers of coffee found that the slow metabolizers were much more likely to develop high blood pressure than rapid metabolizers. A more recent study found that people with the “slow” version of the CYP1A2 gene who are moderate or heavy drinkers of coffee are more likely to develop elevated blood sugar than those with the “fast” version.