Atrial Fibrillation Linked to Silent Brain Damage

Atrial Fibrillation Compared to Normal Heart (CDC)

Atrial Fibrillation can Cause Ischemic Strokes in the Brain

Atrial fibrillation is a disorder of the electrical rhythm of the heart. It is the most common cause for an irregular heartbeat, whereby the heart beats too slowly, too fast or in another abnormal way. However, even though atrial fibrillation is a disorder of the heart, its real danger is to the brain, as it raises the risk for ischemic brain strokes. Atrial fibrillation can cause the formation of blood clots and these are the cause of 15-20% of ischemic strokes in the brain. These strokes tend to be more severe than other kinds of strokes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), atrial fibrillation leads to the hospitalization of 750,000 people and the death of 130,000 people every year. It is on the rise in the United States.

Treatment of Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is usually treated with anticoagulant drugs like warfarin to prevent the formation of blood clots that could lead to a stroke in the brain. It may also be treated with medicines to control the heartbeat.

Atrial Fibrillation Raises Risk for Dementia

Atrial fibrillation raises the risk for dementia in people. While it is known that strokes can raise the risk for dementia and cognitive decline, researchers have been puzzled as to why people with atrial fibrillation who have never had a stroke are also at risk for dementia.

Four out of Ten People with Atrial Fibrillation have Silent Undiagnosed Brain Damage

The search for these answers led to the research that discovered that 4 out of every 10 people with atrial fibrillation have silent undiagnosed brain damage. The results of the Swiss Atrial Fibrillation Cohort Study (Swiss-AF) were presented August 26, 2018, at the European Society for Cardiology (ESC) 2018 Conference in Munich, Germany.

MRI Scans Detected Previously Undiagnosed Brain Damage

There were 1389 participants in the study who had atrial fibrillation, but no prior history of any kind of stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA). The average age of the participants was 75 and 26% were women. The majority of the participants were being treated by anticoagulants. The participants were given MRI scans that revealed that 569 (41%) of them had the following previously undiagnosed brain damage that could lead to cognitive decline and dementia:

207 (15%) had a cerebral infarct

269 (19%) had small bleeds in the brain (microbleeds)

222 (16%) had small deep brain lesions called lacunes.

The researchers could not determine if this silent brain damage took place before or after the treatment with anticoagulant drugs such as warfarin. However, this does show that treatment with anticoagulant drugs may not prevent all brain damage in people with atrial fibrillation.

Causes of Atrial Fibrillation

Obesity has been shown to be a very big risk factor for the development of atrial fibrillation. In fact, a recent Australian study showed that losing only 10% of one’s weight could stop the progression of the disease. The study was published June 14, 2018, in the heart journal Eurospace by the Centre for Heart Rhythm Disorders at the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI).

Other Risk Factors for Atrial Fibrillation

  • Aging also raises the risk for atrial fibrillation and it occurs more often in women than in men.
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Congestive heart failure (CHF)
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • High thyroid disease (hyperthyroidism)
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Enlargement of chambers on the left side of heart
  • European ancestry

Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

Some people who have atrial fibrillation do not show symptoms and often do not know that they have this condition. Sometimes it is discovered by a routine electrocardiogram (EKG) of the heart. Some of the symptoms are:

  • An Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart palpitations (rapid, fluttering or pounding)
  • light-headed
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Feeling Short of breath
  • Chest pain

Post Stroke or Cardiac Rehabilitation

If you or your loved one are in need of post stroke or cardiac rehabilitation make sure to choose a skilled rehab that specializes in post stroke rehabilitation or cardiac rehabilitation like the Royal Suites Healthcare and Rehabilitation in Galloway Township, New Jersey. Royal Suites also offers a beautiful setting that is surrounded by eight acres of woods and lovely gardens.


Atrial fibrillation is on the rise in the United States. If you have been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation you should also have a MRI scan of your brain to make sure there is no undetected brain damage. Also, try to lose weight, as losing only 10% of weight was able to stop the progression of the disease in an Australian study.


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