Cases of Atrial Fibrillation (AF) are at an all-time high, according to new research.
Findings published in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe suggest that the number of people living with the heart rhythm condition in England has increased dramatically in every year of the last 20 years, and the study team believe similar rises are being replicated globally.
AF, which is a major cause of stroke, now outstrips the combined number of people diagnosed with the four most common types of cancer – breast, prostate, lung and bowel cancer – and exceeds those living with heart failure.
In what is one of the largest ever AF studies, the team from the University of Leeds analysed GP and hospital data from 3.4 million people and found that the number diagnosed with AF in England each year increased 72%, from 117,880 a year in 1998 to 202,333 in 2017.
Researchers say that is largely due to an ageing and more unhealthy population.
In broader terms, the data showed that the number of people diagnosed with AF is 30% higher than two decades ago, a figure which ties in with findings from a report published in the International Journal of Stroke showing that the worldwide prevalence of AF is 37,574 million cases (0.51% of worldwide population), an increase of 33% during the last 20 years.
The Leeds team also found that more men were diagnosed with AF and at an average of five years earlier than women, and that people from the most deprived communities were 20% more likely to have AF.
Another recent UK study, led by data scientists at the University of Manchester, found similar inequalities of care for AF patients, and that ethnic minority patients and people from deprived neighbourhoods were not being prescribed the oral anticoagulation (blood thinners) to lower their stroke risk.
Despite these numbers, many more people are living with hidden and poorly managed AF as it often does not have symptoms.
Detecting AF is difficult and as a result there are believed to be millions of people worldwide who may have undiagnosed AF.
However, remote monitoring devices – such as the CART-I ring cardio tracker from Sky Labs – have been shown to help in the detection of AF with 24/7 monitoring of patients and are increasingly being used to diagnose AF in patients.
The Leeds researchers hope their study will lead to new interventions and health strategies being explored to curtail the rise in cases.
Professor Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation – which part-funded the research – said: “It emphasises that we need more targeted prevention strategies and new innovations to equip doctors to better detect the condition early so people can benefit from anti-clotting drugs and other life-saving treatment.”
Study author Dr Jianhua Wu, Associate Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Leeds, pointed out that as population structures and health trends in England are similar to those in Europe, North America and Australasia, researchers “can safely assume that the burden of AF is at an all-time high in these countries too.”
It is estimated that 6-12 million people will suffer from AF in the United States by 2050 (compared to 3-6 million now) and 17.9 million people in Europe by 2060, up from the present 9 million.