It may start with a feeling as if the heart is skipping a beat or beating too hard or fast.
Those heart palpitations may lead to shortness of breath, or even fatigue or chest pain.
While these symptoms can mean many different medical conditions, they also may lead doctors to suspect atrial fibrillation - the most common type of heart arrhythmia.
While catching any long-term health condition early is important, Dr. Adarsh Bhan, a cardiologist on staff at Advocate South Suburban Hospital, said diagnosing atrial fibrillation early in patients reduces the risk of stroke and heart failure - two major complications of AF.
And as age goes up, so does the risk.
"The incidence rate is pretty high," Bhan said. "At 60 years old, the incidence rate is 4 percent, and at 80, it's 10 percent."
Diagnosing AF can be challenging, however, at times. While an electrocardiogram test is often the tool for catching it, Bhan said not everyone exhibits signs and symptoms often associated with the heart problem.
"Not every atrial fibrillation stays all the time, either," he said. "It can come and go."
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, AF is more common in people who have high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, heart failure, rheumatic heart disease, structural heart defects and congenital heart defects. It's also more common in those who are having heart attacks or who have just had surgery.
To understand AF, Bhan points to the heart's electrical system, which controls the rate and rhythm of the heartbeat. In a healthy adult heart at rest, an electrical signal begins a new heartbeat 60 to 100 times a minute. If a person is suffering from an arrhythmia, the heart may beat too fast, too slow or with an irregular rhythm.
Once a physician diagnoses a patient with AF, the next course of action involves preventing further damage, Bhan said.
"Once we diagnose, our treatment involves preventing a stroke and relieving the symptoms," he said.
Because blood can pool in the heart's upper chambers, a blood clot may form, he said. If that clot breaks off and travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke.
"Doctors will prescribe a blood thinner, such as Coumadin," Bhan said.
Bhan said once patients are prescribed blood thinners for AF, they likely will be required to take them for the duration of their lives.
"Over the last couple of years, however, blood thinners have been more effective and have simplified patients' lives because no monitoring is needed," he said.
Other courses of treatment include medications, procedures to restore a normal heart rhythm and surgery.
Following a healthy lifestyle, however, can lower a person's risk for heart disease that may then help prevent atrial fibrillation.
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends following a heart healthy diet that's low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, as well as not smoking, being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight.