Thousands of people undiagnosed with irregular heartbeat increasing risk of stroke

19 May 2017        

Category: BHF Comment

Doctor and patient

Up to 500,000 people could be unaware that they have an irregular heartbeat, dramatically increasing their risk of stroke, according to new estimates we've released today.  

Research suggests that one in six people will develop an irregular heartbeat, known as atrial fibrillation (AF), during their lifetime. 

Around 1.2 million people have been diagnosed with AF in the UK, but the BHF says there are hundreds of thousands more with the condition which can increase a person’s risk of stroke by up to five times if untreated. 

Estimates suggest that around a third of people with AF are not yet diagnosed (4). NHS and AF-related stroke costs the UK economy over £2billion each year. 

There are a number of causes of AF including high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid disease and diabetes. AF can easily be detected with pulse checks and other tools available to patients and GPs.

But worryingly, research has shown that the majority (54%) of people with AF aren’t taking medication to reduce their risk of a potentially fatal stroke. 

It is estimated that 12,000 deaths from AF related stroke could be prevented every year if patients were managed effectively with medication.

Research is helping us understand stroke

Stroke is often fatal and those who do survive can suffer brain damage leading to neurological disabilities, such as losing the ability of speech, affecting quality of life for the patient and wider family.

The most common presenting symptoms of AF are palpitations, breathlessness and dizziness, although as many as 25-30% do not have symptoms. Therefore, many people may fail to present for assessment and treatment, despite having an elevated risk of stroke.

Our research is helping to understand the links between AF and stroke and find new ways to reduce the burden of AF related strokes but there is still much more to do.

Dr Mike Knapton, our Associate Medical Director, said: “Thousands of people with atrial fibrillation are needlessly dying of stroke every year because they are not being identified, and adequately managed.

“There are still hundreds of thousands of people undiagnosed with AF, putting them at significant increased risk of suffering a stroke.

“Research is helping us understand the links between AF and stroke, but there is still much more to do.

“We need to detect people with an irregular heartbeat and then ensure they are getting the right care and treatment to reduce their risk of having a stroke.”

Learn about our research