A medical professional checks the heart of an older woman
Experts say women should keep a close watch on their heart health. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • Researchers say that overall men are more likely to develop atrial fibrillation (AFib) than women.
  • However, they note that when women’s shorter height is taken into account, women actually have a higher risk of AFib than men.
  • They say the medical community needs to shift its focus to determine why women have this higher risk.

Traditional thought is that men are at a greater risk of developing atrial fibrillation (AFib) than women.

However, researchers are now reporting that women may have a higher risk after height is taken into account.

Research completed at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars Sinai and published in JAMA Cardiology states that women could have a 50% higher risk of developing AFib than men.

The researchers examined the medical records of 25,119 individuals without a prior diagnosis of heart disease.

After a median follow-up period of 5.3 years, there were 900 confirmed AFib events with 495 occurring in men and 405 in women.

When the scientists adjusted the data for age and treatment assignment, men had a higher risk than women. When adjusting for race and ethnicity, smoking, alcohol intake, hypertension, diabetes, thyroid disease, exercise, and body mass index (BMI), men still were more at risk.

However, women had a higher risk when researchers considered height or body size. 

The researchers reported that the taller a person is, the more likely they will develop AFib. Since women are typically shorter, their risk level was reported as lower. However, if a man and woman are the same height, researchers said the woman would be more at risk of developing AFib.

Height matters

But why would height increase the risk of AFib?

“It is generally known that the more heart tissue, the larger the organism, and the more likely atrial fibrillation develops. For example, it is difficult to have AFib in mice but is very common to see it in horses,” explained Dr. Shephal Doshi, a cardiac electrophysiologist and director of cardiac electrophysiology and pacing at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

“The findings in this study help shed light on the gender disparity related to atrial fibrillation risk, specifically considering a person’s height,” said Dr. Salvatore Savona, an electrophysiologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“Previously, women were thought to have a lower risk for developing AFib. However, considering these results and the fact that women often suffer from higher rates of heart failure and stroke than men, more focus should be given to early identification and prevention of atrial fibrillation,” Savona told Healthline.

Previously, the medical community sought to answer the question of why women seemed to be protected from AFib.

Now, researchers say the question should be: why do women have a higher risk of developing AFib?

What is atrial fibrillation?

“Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm disorder, with incidence rates that are increasing,” says Dr. Nikhil Warrier, a cardiac electrophysiologist and medical director of electrophysiology at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California.

“In AFib, the atria, or upper chambers of the heart, beat in an extremely disorganized way (sometimes up to 300 to 600 beats per minute). This leads to an increased risk of stroke and congestive heart failure,” Warrier explained to Healthline.

Symptoms can range from non-existent to severe.

“While some people may be completely asymptomatic from atrial fibrillation, common symptoms include palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, and fatigue,” says Dr. Nadia Jafar, a cardiologist with Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California, an affiliate of Cedars Sinai.

“You should seek medical attention if any of the above symptoms occur or are persistent,” Jafar told Healthline.

More than 454,000 people are hospitalized with AFib annually in the United States. Researchers estimate that more than 12 million people in the United States will have AFib by 2030.

Treatment options for AFib

There are numerous treatment options for AFib.

They include:

  • Medications – different medications can be used to slow down your heart rate, or blood thinners can help prevent a blood clot
  • Cardioversion – Electroshock treatment is used to try to restore the heart’s normal heart rhythm
  • Catheter ablation – also called cardiac ablation, it involves using a catheter to destroy the tissue around the heart causing atrial fibrillation
  • Surgical ablation – a minimally invasive surgery to destroy tissue responsible for the AFib

Prevention of AFib

Not all cases of AFib can be prevented. However, living a healthy lifestyle can help.

Experts say lifestyle factors include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Following a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet high in plant-based foods and low in saturated fats
  • Being physically active
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Experts say it’s crucial to see your doctor regularly.

It also helps to keep a record of your symptoms and bring the log with you to your doctor’s appointments.

Some people find some triggers cause an abnormal heart rate, including caffeine, stress, and some exercises. Avoiding triggers can help, experts say.

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