Atrial fibrillation linked to wider range of serious conditions

7 September 2016        

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The heart rhythm disorder atrial fibrillation is associated with a wide range of serious events, including heart attacks, heart failure, chronic kidney disease, and sudden cardiac death, according to new research.

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is one of the most common abnormal heart rhythms and a major cause of stroke. However, the study, from the University of Oxford and MIT in the USA published in The BMJ, suggests that the risk associated with many of these other conditions and events is greater than that of stroke.

As a result of their findings, the researchers are calling for new treatments and approaches to reduce the risk of non-stroke events in people with AF.

An analysis of over 100 studies

Despite it being well known that AF is associated with increased risk of stroke and death, there has been very little research into the association between AF and other heart and circulatory problems.

The researchers therefore decided to analyse the results of over 100 studies involving over 9 million people to assess the association between AF and non-stroke events. They found that AF was associated with a 61 per cent increased risk of coronary heart disease, a 64 per cent increased risk of chronic kidney disease, an 88 per cent increased risk of sudden cardiac death and a 96 per cent increased risk of a major heart and circulatory event.

While AF was associated with a 2.3-fold risk of stroke, the association with heart failure was even higher, fivefold.

AF is more than an electrical problem

Professor Barbara CasadeiThe BHF is one of the major funders of AF research in the UK. At the University of Oxford we fund BHF Professor Barbara Casadei, who is a world-leading researcher of atrial fibrillation but not involved in this study.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Casadei said:

"We've known for some time that conditions, such as chronic kidney disease, are associated with a higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation and that people who have atrial fibrillation are more likely to have a heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.

"This new study adds further strength to the argument that AF is rarely a pure electrical problem but can both be causing and be caused by a number of serious health conditions. Health professionals need to be mindful of this and people who notice they have an irregular pulse should consult their GP as soon as possible.

"Over a million people in the UK have AF – the symptoms can be hugely distressing but the major concern is how much it can increase a person’s risk of a stroke, heart failure and premature death. Our research is moving us towards better treatments that could reduce that risk and help us manage the condition better. But there's still so much we don't understand about atrial fibrillation so continued research is urgently needed."

Find out more

Our Heart Matters team met with Professor Casadei and interviewed her for our magazine.

Read the interview