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May 18, 2012

Female Atrial Fibrillation Patients at Greater Stroke Risk than Men

Research has shown that stroke risk may be even greater in women vs. men with atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm, affecting 2.2 million Americans. Although atrial fibrillation itself is not usually life threatening, it can lead to serious complications, such as stroke. In fact, patients with atrial fibrillation are 5 times more likely to have a stroke than the general U.S. population. And unfortunately, research has shown that stroke risk may be even greater in women vs. men with atrial fibrillation. However, little is known about the cause of this disparity.

One theory is that women may be undertreated for their condition compared to men, which could lead to increased cardiovascular risk. For example, the drug warfarin is a type of blood thinner that is extremely effective in reducing stroke risk in patients. If women with atrial fibrillation were less likely to be prescribed this medication than men, it’s possible that this could at least, in part, explain the increased stroke risk in women.

To test this idea, researchers followed more than 80,000 male and female Canadian patients diagnosed with atrial fibrillation between 1998 and 2007. By tracking these patients, researchers were able to see who was prescribed the blood thinner, warfarin, how well patients adhered to the medication, and how many suffered strokes in coming years. After analysis, it turned out that women actually filled their prescriptions for warfarin more than men, yet still were significantly more likely to suffer a stroke compared to men.

Based on these findings, it is unlikely that differences in treatment for atrial fibrillation account for the increased stroke risk in female patients compared to men. Instead, researchers will have to look to other causes to help understand why women with atrial fibrillation are significantly more likely to have a stroke than men. And in the meantime, female patients with atrial fibrillation should take extra steps to help reduce their stroke risk, like by adhering to medication and making positive lifestyle changes.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What are possible complications from atrial fibrillation?

  • The most common complications from atrial fibrillation include increased risk for stroke and also heart failure. However, proper control and treatment of atrial fibrillation can help reduce such risks.
  • What are the signs of stroke?

  • The signs of stroke include numbness of the face, loss of balance or coordination, trouble with speaking or understanding, trouble seeing in one or both eyes and a sudden, severe headache. It is important to call 911 at the very first sign of stroke.