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Feb 05, 2014

Atrial Fibrillation Doubles Heart Attack Risk

Study finds atrial fibrillation increases risk for heart attack, especially in women and blacks.

For decades, we thought that stroke poses the greatest threat to patients with an abnormal heartbeat, called atrial fibrillation (AFib). AFib increases risk of stroke by five times and as a result, doctors try to reduce risk of stroke in AFib patients through medication and lifestyle changes. But according to a recent study, heart attack should also be a major concern for patients with AFib.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, this study included nearly 24,000 adults enrolled in the REGARDS cohort (Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke)—a study designed to investigate differences in stroke across the country. Participants were free of heart disease at the start of the study and were followed for nearly 7 years, after joining the cohort between 2003 and 2007.

During follow-up, there were a total of 648 heart attacks. Interestingly, subjects with AFib had nearly twice the risk of heart attack compared to individuals without this condition—but risk varied between subjects. Among subjects with AFib, women and blacks had the greatest risk for heart attack during the follow-up period.

Based on these findings, authors conclude that heart attack is a serious health concern for patients with AFib. With an estimated 2.66 million Americans living with AFib, the impact of these findings is enormous. Rather than focusing on stroke prevention alone, taking steps to prevent heart attack in AFib patients could be just as important in reducing risk of complications. Further, patients that may have the greatest risk for heart attack, such as women and blacks, need to take extra precautions when it comes to heart attack prevention.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is atrial fibrillation?

  • Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rhythm caused by abnormal, chaotic electrical impulses in the heart’s upper chambers, the atria. These electrical impulses, which interfere with the heart’s natural pacemaker, fire so rapidly the atria cannot beat with a regular rhythm or squeeze out blood effectively. Instead, they merely quiver while the ventricles, the heart’s lower chambers, beat rapidly.
  • Why is someone with atrial fibrillation at risk for a stroke?

  • Normally, blood is constantly flowing through the atria, ventricles and blood vessels. But because blood pools in the quivering atria, it has the chance to congeal into blood clots, which can travel to the brain, blocking blood flow and causing a stroke. That’s why patients with atrial fibrillation must take some form of anti-clotting medication such as aspirin or the blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin).

    Not wanting to take lifelong blood thinners is one of the reasons people have radiofrequency ablation to rid themselves of atrial fibrillation. However, researchers in the new study advised anyone who has already had a stroke to continue taking blood thinners, since atrial fibrillation can return even after a successful radiofrequency ablation procedure.

Related

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Featured Video

AFib affects more than 3 million people in the United States.