Does Irregular Heartbeat Pose a Higher Threat to Women?

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Wednesday, 20th January 2016

A new review has suggested that the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm in the world seems to pose a higher health risk to women than men.

The analysis was published in the BMJ yesterday and suggests that atrial fibrillation is a greater risk factor for death, stroke and heart failure in women than it is in men. Atrial fibrillation takes place when disorganised and rapid electrical signals cause the atria (the two upper chambers in the heart) to contract in a jerky fashion. Most commonly, the condition is most commonly linked to an elevated risk of stroke. This is because the irregular rhythm allows blood to clot and pool in the area. It is a leading cause of stroke and heart disease globally, and researchers of the study said an estimated 33.5 million people were affected in 2010.

After reviewing evidence from 30 studies that involved 4.3 million participants, researchers concluded that women with atrial fibrillation are two times more likely to suffer a stroke than men with the same condition.

The investigators also found that compared to men, women with atrial fibrillation have a 93% higher risk of dying from a heart condition, a 55% higher risk of having a heart attack, a 16% higher risk of developing heart failure and a 12% higher risk of dying from any cause.

Review author Connor Emdin said the research adds to an increasing amount of literature that suggests women might experience cardiovascular risk factors and diseases differently to men. He said one explanation for the higher risk could be that on average, atrial fibrillation is more severe in women than in men. He added that the link could be coincidental, as the studies reviewed weren’t clinical trials, meaning that a direct cause-and-effect association cannot be established.

Mr Emdin also said that the links reported in the studies may not be casual and women with atrial fibrillation could be more likely to have pre-existing medical conditions that are linked to cardiovascular disease and death.

According to director of women’s heart health Lenox Hill Hospital’s Heart and Vascular Institute in New York, Dr Suzanne Steinbaum, women might have a higher risk with atrial fibrillation because their symptoms are less apparent than symptoms in men. She said it’s reasonable to consider that it may be diagnosed later in women, or that the symptoms are different or that it’s simply not recognised. She went on to say that women might disregard symptoms such as shortness of breath or fatigue, mistaking them for feeling tired or stressed rather than as a heart disease warning sign.

Duke University cardiologist Dr Christopher Granger said that a major problem is lack of appropriate treatment for both men and women with atrial fibrillation. He said most patients should be on anti-clotting (anticoagulant) drugs to prevent stroke, but in many cases this doesn’t happen.

Emdin, Steinbaum and Granger all recommended that women with atrial fibrillation ought to improve their health through controlling their cholesterol and blood pressure levels, managing stress, exercising and eating the right foods. Emdin said that recent studies demonstrate that modification of lifestyle can reduce atrial fibrillation severity and women should consult with their doctors about the use of anti-clotting medication.