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Obesity is a known risk factor for atrial fibrillation, which can trigger stroke and other dangerous problems when the top chambers of the heart, called the atria, quiver erratically -- sometimes faster than 300 times per minute.

The Mayo Clinic researchers examined data from 438 patients with a BMI of 40 or higher who were identified as good candidates for bariatric surgery, with about three-quarters of them electing to undergo the procedure.

While the incidence of atrial fibrillation was not markedly different between the surgical and nonsurgical group at the start of the study, only 6 percent of the surgical patients developed the abnormal heartbeat condition over the next seven years, compared to 16 percent of the nonsurgical patients, according to study documents.

"I think this is further evidence that maintaining a normal body weight or weight loss is important for cardiovascular health," said Gold, who is also second vice president of the Heart Rhythm Society. "It provides further impetus for clinicians to think about bariatric surgery sooner, particularly cardiologists. We can be more proactive in our treatment."

Dr. John Day, director of heart rhythm services at Intermountain Heart Institute in Murray, Utah, noted that North America has the highest prevalence of atrial fibrillation in the world, largely because of its obesity epidemic. Prior research has indicated that obesity increases the risk of atrial fibrillation by more than 50 percent, he said.

"The message here is that getting the weight off can have a powerful reversal effect on atrial fibrillation," Day said. "Atrial fibrillation is a reversible condition, it's not set in stone. This is a message of hope for so many patients suffering from it."

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