Adults Under 65 Face Elevated AFib Risks, Study Finds

An analysis of health records shows that atrial fibrillation impacts more people under 65 than previously thought and carries higher risks of mortality for folks in this age group.

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a type of heart arrhythmia that occurs when electrical signals to the heart's upper chambers malfunction, causing them to beat erratically. When this happens, blood circulation in the heart is disrupted, which can increase the risk of stroke. Estimates suggest that about 24% of strokes in individuals over 80 are attributable to this type of arrhythmia.

AFib is thought to be more common and more dangerous among people over 65. However, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Heart and Vascular Institute found evidence to challenge that notion.

Their research, published on April 22 in Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology, found that AFib is significantly more common in younger people than experts believe. Moreover, younger people with the condition are more likely to experience adverse outcomes, such as stroke or heart failure, than older adults with AFib.

To conduct the study, investigators analyzed the health records of over 67,000 people with AFib from 2010 to 2019. The data showed that more than 25% of the AFib patients were under the age of 65, which is significantly more than the 2% previously estimated.

In addition, the survival rates among younger people with AFib were up to 1.5 times worse for men and up to 3.16 times worse for women over the 9-year study period compared to people without the arrhythmia. This aligns with previous research that found AFib impacts women more often and more severely than men.

The research team also found that the rates of heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, and sleep apnea, were higher among younger people with AFib.

The scientists say the higher prevalence of AFib among individuals under 65 is likely the result of an overall increase in these cardiovascular risk factors among younger people.

Can AFib be prevented?

While AFib can occur for no apparent reason, people who have a family member with AFib, drink alcohol excessively, smoke, or use illicit drugs may be at higher risk of developing the condition.

In addition, specific surgical procedures, working out strenuously, and experiencing severe emotional stress can increase the risk of atrial fibrillation.

Although preventing AFib is not always possible, adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle may help. This includes maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in moderate physical activity, and managing stress. Moreover, addressing conditions like obstructive sleep apnea may lower the risk of AFib and other heart-related conditions.

Identifying AFib may be easier than it used to be due to the advent of wearable technology that can detect heart rhythm disturbances. According to a 2022 study, smartwatch algorithms correctly identified AFib in nearly 94% of participants who visited a clinician after their device flagged the arrhythmia.

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