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Heart Rhythm Disease Rising Faster Than Expected

December 11, 2009

New research shows that some 3 million Americans may be suffering from the common heart arrhythmia know as atrial fibrillation.  Even more shocking, however, experts say that number will probably double over the next 25 years.

Known to most medical professionals as simply “a-fib,” atrial fibrillation takes place when the heart’s natural pacemaker is overrun by sporadic rogue electrical signals in the heart’s upper chambers, which cause the heart to quiver and beat irregularly.

While some patients experience only temporary spells of atrial fibrillation, for others it’s a permanent condition””and a dangerous one at that.  According to the American Heart Association, chronic sufferers of a-fib are five times likelier to experience a stroke than patients with normal heart rhythms.  It is also known to be a contributing factor to congestive heart failure.

The research project was sponsored by Sanofi-Aventis “” manufacturer of the atrial fibrillation medication Multaq “” and used data obtained from the Healthcare Division of Thomas Reuters, the parent company of Reuters Health.

Researchers examined a database of national health claims from July 2004 to December 2005 that included more than 22 million Americans over the age of 20.

Dr. Gerald V. Naccarelli of Pennsylvania State University worked together with researchers from Thomson Reuters and Sanofi-Aventis to analyze the data.

The team found that approximately 1 percent of the 22 million cases reviewed suffered from atrial fibrillation.  When these statistics are extrapolated across the entire U.S. population, they say that as many 3 million Americans may have the chronic heart disorder. 

Naccarelli’s team also found a strong correlation between atrial fibrillation and high blood pressure as well as coronary artery disease when compared with patients with normal heart rhythms.

The team’s report concluded with a forecast of the future of the disease.  By 2025, estimated the researchers, nearly 5 million Americans will suffer from atrial fibrillation, with that number rising to 7.6 million by 2050.

The analysis offered by Naccarelli’s team was found to be at odds with a 2001 study that was based on data from the mid-90s.  The earlier study predicted that there would be around 2.4 a-fib sufferers by 2005, 3.8 million in 2035, and 5.6 million by 2050.

Authors of the newly released report defended the accuracy of their results, saying that the prevalence of atrial fibrillation has likely risen significantly since the 1990s as the U.S. population continues to age and the baby-boom generation moves closer to the most at-risk age group for the disease. 

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