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New Study Says Atrial Fibrillation Is Riskier For Women Than Men


Atrial fibrillation, a irregular heartbeat, affected more than 33-million people globally in 2010.

A new study says atrial fibrillation appears to be a stronger risk factor for heart disease and death in women than in men.

Dr. Sunita Koshy-Nesbitt, a Cardiac Electrophysiologist and medical director of the Intensive Cardiac Rehab program at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital, explains atrial fibrillation and possible reason for the higher risk factor.

Highlights from Dr. Koshy-Nesbitt’s interview:

What is atrial fibrillation? "It’s an electrical disorder in the top chambers of the heart. It causes a very chaotic and erratic pumping mechanism in those top chambers. Lots of patients will fell palpitations, some fatigue. Others may go as far as feeling dizzy and having chest pain. This order doesn’t allow blood to pump out as normally as it would otherwise, so those patients who have atrial fibrillation are more prone to clotting in those areas of the heart and they usually need treatment, including blood thinning medication."

The resulting blood flow can lead to a number of problems: "Yes, that blood will pool in the upper chambers and cause clotting, which will lead to strokes. When the lower chamber doesn’t get its appropriate amount of blood, it can go into heart failure over time."

Why the higher risk for women with atrial fibrillation? "It’s really not pinpointed exactly as to why. There is a growing amount of information and literature showing that women not only experience risk factors for heart disease different than men, they have a higher mortality associated with it. Atrial fibrillation. A lot of times, is caused by underlying heart disease. So one reason for women to have atrial fibrillation could be under diagnosed or under treated for heart disease.

Is it possible that the symptoms related to the heart can be easily mistaken for other things?  What we do know for sure is that women’s symptom when it comes to heart disease, in particular heart attack or chest pain, are different from men. So sure there may be a lot of women who may be having a heart attack who (think they) just have nausea and they will let that go. Is that why there’s an increased risk of atrial fibrillation in women or is that in fact atrial fibrillation is a true, true unrelated disease disorder that is in higher prevalence in women? We just don’t know.

What can be done to prevent atrial fibrillation? Atrial fibrillation, in and of itself, has several risk factors. First and foremost, underlying cardiovascular disease. However, there are increased caffeine intake, increased alcohol intake. Stress can cause atrial fibrillation, even air pollution, obstructive sleep apnea, gastrointestinal disorders. There is some literature emerging in the basic science realm to suggest that atrial fibrillation has a genetic predisposition, and that it can run in families. However, there is such a strong co-morbidities and risk factors for atrial fibrillation from the list that I just told you that even if you are predisposed to atrial fibrillation, you may not get it without these other stressors, basically.

For more information:

Irregular heartbeat is riskier for women 

BMJ Study: Atrial fibrillation as risk factor for cardiovascular disease and death in women compared with men 

What Is Atrial Fibrillation? 

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.