Women, not men, face greater risk of abnormal heart rhythm, study says

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Women have a 50% higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation compared to men when height is taken into account, a new study says. Photo by Melwinsy/Wikimedia Commons

Women have a 50% higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation compared to men when height is taken into account, a new study says. Photo by Melwinsy/Wikimedia Commons

Aug. 31 (UPI) — New research discards the conventional wisdom that men are at greater risk for developing atrial fibrillation than women, indicating that women have a 50% higher risk of developing the abnormal heart rhythm when height is taken into account.

“Our study, however, surprisingly suggests that if a man and a woman have the same height, the woman would be more likely to develop AFib,” Dr. Christine Albert, the study’s senior author, said in a news release.

Albert is chair of The Smidt Heart Institute’s Department of Cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The study was published Wednesday in JAMA Cardiology.

The bottom line is the taller a person is, the more at risk they are for atrial fibrillation — and women were found previously to have a lower risk because they tend to be shorter than men.

Albert describes it as “the first study to show an actual flip” in the higher risk of the heart condition, from men to women.

“Now the question has changed: Instead of why are women protected, now we must seek to understand why women are at a higher risk,” she said.

Albert led the national VITAL Rhythm Trial upon which the findings are based.

VITAL explored the effect of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acid supplements on atrial fibrillation among 25,000 men 50 years or older and women 55 years or older, without a history of the abnormal heart rhythm, cardiovascular disease or cancer.

According to the new study, using the VITAL population, women were found to be at greater risk for the condition compared to men when height and weight, rather than body mass index, were considered.

Researchers said the data underscore the importance of atrial fibrillation prevention in women, especially since it is the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm.

And while women have lower rates of AF than men, women are more likely to suffer adverse consequences from the condition: stroke, heart failure or death.

Prevention strategies include keeping a healthy weight, controlling blood pressure, limiting alcohol use and exercising moderately, they said.

Once diagnosed, the condition may be treated with blood thinners and outpatient procedures such as cardioversion, a mild electric shock to reset the heart to a regular rhythm; ablation, which destroys small parts of heart tissue to keep faulty electrical signals from triggering irregular heartbeats, or heart surgery.

The investigators said women are less likely to undergo invasive treatments, such as ablation, for the condition.

It’s not a situation seen as improving. By 2030, an estimated 12.1 million Americans will have atrial fibrillation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The risk for atrial fibrillation increases with age, the CDC says. And high blood pressure, which also ramps up as people get older, accounts for about 1 in 5 cases.

And as the general population ages and increases in size — both in height and weight — more individuals are likely to be diagnosed with the condition, Albert said.

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