A World Health Organization study reveals atrial fibrillation is the most common condition leading to an irregular heartbeat, and it is a serious global health problem that is growing.

Atrial fibrillation and other forms of arrhythmia interfere with the electrical activity in the upper chambers, or atria, of the heart, causing an irregular heartbeat.

This, in turn, disrupts the flow of blood through the heart, and can result in palpitations, lightheadness, shortness of breath, extreme fatigue and chest pain.

When the heart is not beating properly, blood can stagnate and clot. If clots break free and travel to the brain, they can cause a stroke.

Dr. Sumeet Chugh, associate director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, led the World Health Organization (WHO) study to analyze data from 1,784 population-based medical research papers.

He and his team of researchers were seeking to establish global and regional prevalence of the condition, as well as incidence and mortality rates among those affected.

Dr. Chugh explains:

Atrial fibrillation has a huge cost in every sense of the word. It can lead to stroke, hospitalization, as well as lost productivity. Our findings indicate that atrial fibrillation is on the rise around the world and it’s a huge public health burden.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the estimated cost of treatment for atrial fibrillation in the US was $6.65 billion in 2005 (the latest estimate), including hospitalization, physician care and medications.

Research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2013 stated that between 1998 and 2010, there were 4.6 million hospitalizations in the US for atrial fibrillation.

At present, atrial fibrillation is diagnosed by an electrocardiogram (ECG) – a test that records the heart’s electrical activity.

Dr. Chugh explains that the first step of the study is to establish the scope of the problem:

“Our hope is that we can develop a sustainable global plan to manage atrial fibrillation and find new and effective ways of preventing this condition.”

The findings reveal that the number of people suffering from atrial fibrillation has been rising steadily. In 1990, for every 100,000 men, an estimated 570 had atrial fibrillation. By 2010, this figure had risen to 596 per 100,000 men.

A similar pattern was also demonstrated for women, with an estimated 360 cases per 100,000 in 1990, rising to 373 per 100,000 for 2010.

The research also points out that although deaths linked to this condition are rising around the world, in developing countries, more women die of it than men. An independent French study recently reported that physicians regularly undertreat women with atrial fibrillation.

The study concludes that there are “progressive increases in overall burden, incidence, prevalence and atrial fibrillation-associated mortality between 1990-2010. Systematic, global survelillance of atrial fibrillation is required to better direct prevention and treatment strategies.”

Dr. Chugh adds:

A lot more research is needed to fully understand this continuing worldwide increase. Although the chance of developing atrial fibrillation does increase with age, these findings are not entirely explained by the aging world population. Several other factors have been suggested and need to be better evaluated, from obesity and hypertension to air pollution.”