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Wednesday, September 9, 1998 Published at 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK


Heartbeat defect more likely to kill women

Atrial fibrillation is when the heart beats irregularly

Gender plays an important part in determining the chances of survival for people with irregular heartbeats, researchers claim.

Findings published in the journal Circulation indicate that women are at least 30% more likely than men to die early as the result of atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation is a heart rhythm disorder that makes the heart beat faster than normal. It increases the risk of stroke and heart attack, although sufferers may initially experience the condition as palpitations.

Dr Emilia Benjamin and her team looked at statistics from the US-based Framingham Heart Study, an ongoing project that has monitored 5,000 men and women in Massachusetts over the last 50 years.

Risk of early death

While both men and women are more at risk of early death if they suffer atrial fibrillation, the researchers found that women with the condition were almost twice as likely to die as women without it.

Men were one-and-a-half times more likely to die.

[ image: The condition usually occurs in people with heart disease]
The condition usually occurs in people with heart disease
Atrial fibrillation is most common in people with some form of heart disease, and is especially common in older people with hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) or high blood pressure (hypertension).

Other diseases

Dr Benjamin's team found that atrial fibrillation increased the risk of death even when other conditions were taken into account

Atrial fibrillation causes the upper chambers of the heart to beat rapidly and irregularly, sometimes at more than 300 beats per minute.

Blood is not pumped efficiently to the lower chambers of the heart, and poor blood flow can cause blood clots to form if the condition persists.

Clots cause stroke

Clots can enter the blood circulation system and travel to the brain, where they could cause stroke.

Atrial fibrillation can, however, be successfully treated.

Doctors can use drugs such as beta-blockers or digitalis to regulate the heartbeat. If this fails, patients can be anaesthetised while electricity is applied to the heart to re-establish normal heart rhythm.

Medicines that thin the blood can also be taken to prevent clots causing damage.

Dr Benjamin called for greater effort to treat and prevent atrial fibrillation.

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