Latest Research on Atrial Fibrillation

It’s the most common type of irregular heartbeat, though it may or may not have symptoms. Without treatment, it can lead to complications like pulmonary embolism and stroke. We’ve known about atrial fibrillation (AFib) in people for over 100 years. Today, researchers are still hard at work on finding ways to treat, manage, and prevent it and its complications. Here’s what some of the most recent research says.

Lifestyle Helps

Simple steps that you can take with your doctor’s help could dramatically improve your quality of life when you have AFib. A recent summary of research details healthy goals you can set, in addition to following your treatment plan. Just a few of the tips are:

  • Lose extra pounds, especially if you’re obese. Dropping just 10% of your weight can help.
  • Gradually work up to getting regular, moderate exercise. It may help to use a wearable device or app that tracks your activity.
  • If you smoke, quit.

Closing In on a Possible Cause

We’ve known for a while that having high blood pressure can make you more likely to get atrial fibrillation. Now a large study suggests that high BP may be a direct cause of AFib. The researchers made this connection after looking at genetic data from over a million people. They concluded that keeping your blood pressure tightly under control might be a key way to avoid getting AFib. But they cautioned that the takeaway may not apply to everyone, since they only looked at people of European descent.

Beware of Burnout

Is stress routinely making you exhausted? If so, it may raise your chances of getting AFib, a study suggests. In the early 1990s, researchers surveyed over 11,000 people who didn’t have an irregular heartbeat. About 23 years later, more than 2,200 of them had gotten AFib. More research is needed, since the researchers only observed a link between burnout and atrial fibrillation.

A Drink a Day May Be Risky

We know that binge-drinking alcohol might make you more likely to get a sudden and limited course of AFib. But a recent study says that regularly having about 1.2 drinks a day is tied to higher risks of getting atrial fibrillation. The link was similar across different types of alcohol.

If you already have AFib and you drink a moderate or a high amount of alcohol, cut back on booze. If this proves hard to do, your doctor can help.

Continued

A Frosty Fix for Fleeting AFib?

Some people have repeat bouts of atrial fibrillation that come and go on their own, called paroxysmal AFib. It can happen with or without noticeable symptoms. Two small studies of people with paroxysmal AFib and symptoms looked at how well medications made to restore the normal heart rhythm and keep it there worked, compared to a procedure that uses extreme coldness, called cryoballoon ablation. The results of both studies suggest that cryoballoon ablation as a first treatment worked better than the meds at keeping paroxysmal AFib from coming back. More research is needed, though.

During cryoballoon ablation, your doctor guides a thin, flexible tube called a catheter from your groin to your heart, and they use it to release and inflate a tiny balloon that freezes that area of your ticker where the AFib comes from. This creates scar tissue that stops the faulty electrical signals that trigger AFib.

A Treatment Pulsing With Potential

A type of ablation that uses electrical pulses instead of heat or cold shows promise in treating AFib, research suggests. A recent small study of 25 people found the procedure to be safe and efficient, but much more research is needed.

Cellphone Safety

If you have a pacemaker that keeps your AFib under control, here’s something to be aware of. Cellphones give off radiofrequency energy, which has the potential to interfere with electronic medical devices. There’s no need to fear your phone, though -- research shows that the risk of it disrupting your pacemaker appears to be low. A couple of steps you can take to be extra safe are:

  • Hold your cellphone to the ear that’s opposite the side of your body where your pacemaker is implanted. This creates more distance.
  • Don’t keep a powered-on phone next to your pacemaker, like in a shirt or jacket pocket that’s directly over your heart device.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 23, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

The New England Journal of Medicine: “Tracing Atrial Fibrillation -- 100 Years,” “Cryoablation or Drug Therapy for Initial Treatment of Atrial Fibrillation,” “Cryoballoon Ablation as Initial Therapy for Atrial Fibrillation.”

Circulation: “Genes and Atrial Fibrillation,” “Lifestyle and Risk Factor Modification for Reduction of Atrial Fibrillation: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association.”

Journal of the American College of Cardiology: “Pulsed Field Ablation in Patients With Persistent Atrial Fibrillation.”

Journal of Cardiovascular Electrophysiology: “Pulsed field ablation for pulmonary vein isolation in the treatment of atrial fibrillation.”

British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology: “One Hundred Years of Atrial Fibrillation.”

European Journal of Preventive Cardiology: “Associations of anger, vital exhaustion, anti-depressant use, and poor social ties with incident atrial fibrillation: The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study,” “The relationship between blood pressure and risk of atrial fibrillation: a Mendelian randomization study.”

European Heart Journal: “Alcohol consumption, cardiac biomarkers, and risk of atrial fibrillation and adverse outcomes.”

FDA: “Potential Cell Phone Interference with Pacemakers and Other Medical Devices.”

UpToDate: “Patient education: Atrial fibrillation (The Basics),” “Patient education: Atrial fibrillation (Beyond the Basics),” “Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation.”

Mayo Clinic: “Atrial fibrillation ablation.”

MedlinePlus: “Atrial Fibrillation.”

American Heart Association: “What is Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF)?” “Who is at Risk for Atrial Fibrillation (AF or AFib)?”

News release, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

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