A new long-term study suggests that adult patients with atrial fibrillation whose heart rhythm is successfully restored with a minimally invasive procedure called catheter ablation, have a significantly reduced chance of early death from a heart attack or heart failure.

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“The study findings show the benefit of catheter ablation extends beyond improving quality of life for adults with atrial fibrillation,” say the researchers.

The team, from the University of Michigan (U-M) at Ann Arbor, reports the findings in the journal Heart Rhythm.

Atrial fibrillation is an age-related heart rhythm disorder caused by electrical “short-circuits” in the heart that impair its ability to pump blood efficiently and cause fluttering sensations in the chest.

People with atrial fibrillation have a higher risk of stroke and heart attacks, and they also suffer a considerably poorer quality of life.

According to the World Heart Federation, who describe the condition as a “growing and urgent public health concern,” atrial fibrillation is the most common sustained abnormal heart rhythm condition worldwide.

In Europe and the US, there are currently estimated to be about 9 million people with atrial fibrillation, and numbers are set to increase.

Catheter ablation is a minimally invasive procedure where an electrophysiologist delivers radiofrequency energy to the heart muscle through a specially designed catheter inserted into the left atrium or chamber of the heart.

The intention is to disrupt the short-circuits that are causing the irregular heart rhythm.

The catheter is inserted with a needle into a vein that runs up to the heart from the groin. A three-dimensional mapping system on a computer helps the doctor guide the catheter precisely to the correct location in the heart.

In this latest study, the U-M researchers showed that death from cardiovascular events dropped by 60% among adults who had their normal heart rhythm successfully restored with catheter ablation.

Lead author Dr. Hamid Ghanbari, an electrophysiologist at U-M’s Frankel Cardiovascular Center, says:

“The study findings show the benefit of catheter ablation extends beyond improving quality of life for adults with atrial fibrillation. If successful, ablation improves life span.”

He and his colleagues found that even older patients gained the cardiovascular survival benefits of the procedure, as did those with diabetes or a history of stroke, or who had sleep apnea, or a condition known as low-ejection fraction – an early sign of heart failure where the heart does not pump enough blood.

In an accompanying editorial, that characterizes catheter ablation of atrial fibrillation as “a death-defying endeavor,” the authors describe the study results as encouraging for those involved in treating the debilitating heart condition.

For their investigation, Dr. Ghanbari and colleagues examined 10 years of follow-up medical data on over 3,000 adults who had received catheter ablation as a treatment for paroxysmal atrial fibrillation – where the condition comes and goes on its own. Most of the participants, whose average age was 58 when they received the treatment, were men.

The study is thought to be the first and longest to examine the clinical outcomes of catheter ablation.

Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently learned how another new study found light may treat atrial fibrillation painlessly. Presenting at a conference in Spain, researchers explained how rather than relying on painful electric shocks, they are studying a new “optogenetic” treatment that uses light to achieve defibrillation in patients with atrial fibrillation.