Startling increase in number of people living with dangerous heart condition revealed by Leeds professors

New research led by experts at the University of Leeds and the British Heart Foundation has found a startling increase in the number of people living with a dangerous heart condition.

By Daniel Sheridan
Monday, 2nd May 2022, 4:45 pm

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The number of people living with atrial fibrillation (AF) – a dangerous heart rhythm condition and a major cause of stroke – has increased by 72 per cent in England over the last two decades, according to research funded by the British Heart Foundation which has been published in The Lancet Regional Health.

The condition now outstrips the combined number of people in England diagnosed with the four most common types of cancer - while exceeding the number of people living with heart failure.

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Geoff Garner, 72, has lived with the condition for more than 20 years.

In pioneering research headed by professors based at the University of Leeds, anonymised GP and hospital data from 3.4 million people in England was analysed for those diagnosed with AF for the first time between 1998 and 2017.

AF happens when the electrical impulses in the top chambers of the heart fire chaotically when they should be steady and regular, causing them to quiver or twitch. This can cause blood to pool in these chambers which increases the risk of clots, life-threatening strokes and a decline in brain function. People with AF are five times more likely to have a stroke, and the stroke is more likely to be debilitating with a lower chance of surviving.

The participants included were representative of age, sex, ethnicity and socioeconomic status for the UK.

The number of people diagnosed with AF in England each year increased 72 per cent from 117,880 in 1998 to 202,333 in 2017.

Dr Jianhua Wu, Associate Professor of Biostatistics, at the University of Leeds

Cases increased in men and women across all age groups, the research found.

Professor Chris Gale, Consultant Cardiologist at the University of Leeds, said: “Changes to healthcare are driven by data, and we’ve created the first blueprint of AF that lays bare the growing impact it is having on society. Our study paints a clear picture of the trends and gaps that need to be urgently addressed to achieve health equity and prevent unnecessary strokes.

"We hope that it can be used as a reference point to determine if new interventions and health strategies are successful in curtailing the rising tide of cases and burden that comes with AF.”

Geoff Garner, 72, said he has had AF for 20 years.

Professor Chris Gale, Consultant Cardiologist at the University of Leeds

Geoff, originally from Leeds but now from the Wirral, said the effects on his life were "devastating".

"I would get a funny feeling, almost like a sickly nausea", Geoff said.

"I'd then get breathless and tired, going to the toilet would take me three stages to get there due to being out of breath."

Geoff had ablation at Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital to counteract the condition.

"It took two years before it settled down", Geoff said of the six hour surgery.

Speaking of the findings of the new research, Geoff said: "I think many people have it and are not aware, becuse it doesn’t effect everyone the same way.

"I think that any solution to AF is encouraging for people like myself who it affects."

The researchers found that the increase in AF is largely due to an ageing and more unhealthy population, putting an immense pressure on healthcare services.

Over the study, more people were living with other health conditions at the time of their diagnosis (including high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity), and the number of people with three of more other health conditions increased from 48 per cent in 1998 to 68 per cent in 2017.

After adjusting for age and sex, Leeds professors found that the number of people diagnosed with AF increased by 30 per cent across the two decades.

More men were diagnosed with AF and at an average of five years earlier than women, which is thought to be partly due to more men having diabetes, obstructive sleep apnoea, coronary heart disease and having smoked.

The youngest and oldest individuals were most likely to be diagnosed in hospital.

This suggests that new onset AF is particularly troublesome in these groups, and measures should be put in place to prevent and detect AF early to reduce hospital admissions.

The researchers also found that compared to the most affluent patients, people from the most deprived communities were 20 per cent more likely to have AF, were diagnosed at an earlier age and had more health conditions at the time of diagnosis.

They also unveiled regional differences across England.

Despite these numbers, many more people will be living with hidden and poorly managed AF as not everyone experiences symptoms and detecting it is difficult.

Now, the team say that unveiling this ‘blueprint’ should lead to changes in the way AF is prevented, detected and treated to bring cases, and the growing burden, back down.

Professor Chris Gale and his team have already developed a new digital prediction tool for AF that aims to detect it early, which they hope can soon be trialled in the NHS.

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “The sheer rise in the number of people now living with AF is staggering, and yet on top of this, many more people will be unaware that they also have this hidden stroke risk in their heart.

“This research also highlights the health inequity that exists in AF and other health conditions such as obesity and high blood pressure that contribute to its development. 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.”

Dr Jianhua Wu, Associate Professor of Biostatistics, at the University of Leeds, said the increasing burden was "not just ringfenced to England".

Dr Wu continued: "Population structures and health trends in England are similar to those seen across the rest of the UK, Europe, North America and Australasia, and so we can safely assume that the burden of AF is at an all-time high in these countries too.”

This study was also funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).