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New light shed on post-stroke atrial fibrillation

Research hailed as being crucial in design of more personalised and effective treatment strategies for patients

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Atrial fibrillation detected after stroke is different to pre-stroke irregular heartbeats, a new study suggests. 

Millions of stroke survivors worldwide are subject to prolonged cardiac monitoring, leading to the discovery of atrial fibrillation in up to 1.5 million of these patients each year.

But new research suggests that atrial fibrillation detected post-stroke is not quite the same as the irregular heartbeats already known before a stroke.

The study, led by Western University, proposes that atrial fibrillation detected post-stroke exhibits distinct characteristics. It has a lower prevalence of risk factors, cardiovascular comorbidities, and changes associated with upper chambers of the heart than atrial fibrillation known prior to the stroke. 

This could potentially explain its association with a decreased risk of another ischaemic stroke, which results from a blocked artery.

“The differences in the nature and effects of atrial fibrillation detected after a stroke compared to those known before are significant,” said Dr Luciano Sposato, who led the study. 

“The article proposes a new classification of heart rhythm and research standards to guide future research in the field, ensuring a more targeted and effective approach to secondary stroke prevention.”

Atrial fibrillation is usually asymptomatic in stroke patients and generally happens in short bursts, which can only be detected by continuously monitoring the heart.

The balance between the total duration of each of those bursts of atrial fibrillation and other risk factors is pivotal in understanding patient risk levels and designing better treatment options.

The authors of this study used information from their own studies, gathered over a decade of intense research in the field, and complemented it with updated data from other groups.

One of the main conclusions is that patients diagnosed with atrial fibrillation post-stroke generally have fewer associated health conditions and a 26 per cent lower likelihood of experiencing another stroke than those with known atrial fibrillation.

This insight is crucial to design more personalised and effective treatment strategies for patients.

“To date, all patients diagnosed with atrial fibrillation after a stroke are treated with anticoagulants, except for when there is a clear contraindication,” said Dr Sposato. 

“This is what current national and international guidelines recommend. In the future, we may be able to identify patients with relatively lower risk who may not need to be treated with anticoagulants immediately but would need to be constantly monitored to detect changes in their risk profile.

“However, further research is needed to prove this concept. AI-driven diagnostic tools are potential game-changers. 

“Such tools may identify low-risk patients and may even flag moments in which their risk is transiently of permanently increased, requiring a change in their medications or prevention strategies.”

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