Half a million people in the UK are living with the undiagnosed heart rhythm disorder — Atrial Fibrillation — unaware they are at greater risk of having a stroke.
Increased use of anticoagulant drugs in patients who have a common heart rhythm disorder prevented four thousand strokes in England between 2015 and 2016.
The analysis — part-funded by us and published today in the European Heart Journal (EHJ) is re-assuring for patients who suffer from the condition known as atrial fibrillation, and a major success story for stroke prevention.
Atrial fibrillation (AF) affects around 1.2 million people in the UK, with 500,000 people believed to be living undiagnosed and unaware that they are at a 5-fold higher risk of stroke compared to those unaffected.
The findings highlight the urgent need for better screening and diagnosis of AF to ensure patients receive the clot-busting treatment which could prevent a devastating stroke.
Professor Chris Gale, Honorary Consultant Cardiologist at the University of Leeds commented on net next steps:
“Sudden strokes in people who have AF are unnecessarily common. Treatments which prevent AF-related strokes are saving lives, but there are still many thousands of people in the UK living with undiagnosed AF who are missing out.
The BHF-funded team from the University of Leeds used national data to analyse the known patients with AF, people seeing a consultant for stroke, new AF diagnoses and the use of anticoagulants amongst high risk patients between 2006 and 2016.
They found that, since 2009, the number of people with AF who are being treated with anticoagulants has more than doubled.
The researchers estimate that, had the uptake of anticoagulants stayed at 2009 levels, there would have been around 4,000 more strokes in patients with AF in England in the 2015/16 financial year.
Stroke is the fourth biggest killer in the UK and the leading cause of disability and in 2016, killed almost twice as many women as breast cancer.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of irregular heartbeat; it causes the heart’s chambers to beat in an uncoordinated, irregular manner. AF can cause blood to pool in the heart, which can form into a blood clot. It this clot travels to the brain it can block the blood supply, leading to a stroke.
AF contributes to between 20–30 per cent of all strokes, and treating these patients with anticoagulants — drugs which slow the formation of blood clots — can cut patients’ risk of stroke by two thirds.
Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, our Medical director points out the importance of spotting AF:
“Spotting AF is surprisingly easy; all it takes is a simple pulse check. A normal heart beat will feel regular, but if you find yours is irregular or random, go and see your GP. It could save your life,”
So why have things improved? The researchers say the reason more people are taking anticoagulant drugs is likely thanks to efforts across the health service to educate patients and doctors about the benefits of anticoagulation. It also comes down to changes to guidelines in the UK and Europe, and the development of new types of anticoagulants which provide a safer and more convenient alternative to warfarin.
Richard, a 47-year-old father of two from Dorset, was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation four years ago. After a Saturday morning coffee, he had sensations of butterflies in his chest. When it didn’t go away after a few hours, and he started to feel abnormally tired, he took himself to A&E.
“I had a heart attack when I was 36, so I knew I needed to get things checked. It was a complete shock when the doctors told me my heart was beating at between 170 and 200bpm. I could barely tell.
- Access the paper here
- Read our blog: What is atrial fibrillation and what does it look like
- If you have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation and are unsure about your options, this guide from NICE may assist your decision making with your healthcare professional — Atrial fibrillation: medicines to help reduce your risk of a stroke — what are the options?
Clot-busting drugs prevent 4,000 strokes each year was originally published in British Heart Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.