Atrial fibrillation (Afib) is the most common form of long-term heart arrhythmia. An arrhythmia occurs when the heart beats too slowly, too fast or in an irregular way. With Afib, the heart’s upper chambers beat out of sync with the lower chambers. It affects about one in three people age 55 or older.

Afib is becoming more common, and researchers predict that cases will keep increasing through 2050. But it’s not all bad news. According to a study by researchers at Boston University School of Public Health, people with Afib are living longer than they did back in the 1970s.

This research comes from the Boston University-based Framingham Heart Study, which is the longest-running heart disease study in the US. For over 45 years, the Framingham Heart Study has been tracking trends in cardiovascular disease. Using data from this study, researchers compared how Afib has affected lifespan in recent years versus more than 40 years ago. Their findings were published in the medical journal BMJ.

Patients in the study diagnosed with Afib were matched with people of the same age and sex who were not diagnosed with the heart condition (the control group). Except for a diagnosis of Afib, the study subjects and the control group were matched for other health conditions. There were about 18,000 people studied, and they were grouped into three time periods. At 10 years after diagnosis, these were the key findings…

  • From 1972 to 1985, people with Afib lived 2.9 years less than people in the control group.
  • From 1986 to 2000, people with Afib lived 2.1 years less than people in the control group.
  • From 2001 to 2015, people with Afib lived 2.0 years less than people in the control group.

The finding that people with Afib have gained about one year of life in the 10 years after diagnosis is good news, and the researchers suspect the improved survival is due to earlier diagnosis and better management, especially better treatments for preventing Afib-related blood clots, which are the major cause of death.

Conclusion: The researchers stress that Afib is still a dangerous disease and efforts to improve survival should include prevention strategies as well as early diagnosis and treatment. Prevention may include improved treatment for other heart conditions, not smoking and controlling high blood pressure.

Source: Study titled “Trends in Excess Mortality Associated with Atrial Fibrillation over 45 years (Framingham Heart Study): Community Based Cohort Study,” by researchers at Boston University School of Public Health, published in BMJ.