Expert Blogs | Heart Health
A Non-Drug Treatment for Afib That’s Surprisingly Effective

JoAnne is a patient of mine who has struggled with atrial fibrillation (or Afib) for several years.

Her first episode of Afib occurred after gallbladder surgery, but she has had multiple episodes since then despite having an ablation procedure and taking the most effective medicines available.

JoAnne’s story is, unfortunately, common.

Afib: Many Treatments, Limited Success

During our visit, she is understandably frustrated when I explain that one of the reasons we have so many treatments for Afib is that none of them are particularly effective.

Even the best medicines to prevent Afib may be effective in only 50% of patients after one year. And Afib ablation (a procedure where catheters are used to alter the electrical connections in the heart), though generally more effective than medication, may not deliver lasting results, either – research data show that 5 years after a single ablation procedure, as little as ½ of the patients are free of Afib.

Though JoAnne was discouraged about the success rates of the traditional treatments for Afib, our visit wasn’t all bad news. In fact, it ended on a high note when I shared with her that more recent research suggests a novel treatment for atrial fibrillation that can dramatically improve her chances of staying in regular rhythm.

And this treatment doesn’t require a prescription or a procedure.

An Afib Epidemic

Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm disorder cardiologists see, and the number of people affected is increasing at epidemic proportions, with over 5 million new cases per year worldwide. The most common drivers of the Afib epidemic are advancing age, high blood pressure, heart artery disease, and obesity, but the causes of Afib are many and varied – some young, healthy people and even endurance athletes can be predisposed to atrial fibrillation.

Knowing that obesity and lifestyle factors (like being sedentary) are associated with Afib, researchers questioned whether physical activity and weight loss would be an effective treatment for Afib.

What they found was remarkable.

The Magic of Weight Loss and Physical Activity

It’s not entirely surprising that losing weight and increasing fitness could decrease Afib, but the magnitude of improvement has been impressive in multiple studies.

One of the first studies that evaluated the effect of weight loss on Afib showed that overweight individuals who lost 10% of their body weight had 6 times less recurrence of Afib than those who did not lose weight. A more recent study confirmed these results. The study showed that 88% of those who lost more than 10% of their body weight had less Afib, whereas only 26% of those who lost less than 3% of their body weight had less Afib.

Getting more fit has also been shown to be of benefit. One study showed that 61% of those who were able to increase their time on a treadmill test by about 2 minutes were Afib-free compared to only 18% of those who did not increase their time on the treadmill.

Hope for Afib

JoAnne was encouraged by these study results. She was excited to potentially have more control over her Afib, and it provided additional motivation for her to get in shape and lose some weight, which she wanted to do anyway. She also liked the idea that in the future she may not need another ablation and could possibly need less medications.

If you are struggling with Afib, talk to your doctor to see if a healthy weight loss and a physical activity plan would be helpful for you.

Dr. Hurst gratefully acknowledges the contribution of Alexandra Winski in the creation of this article.

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R. Todd Hurst, MD, FACC, FASE

R. Todd Hurst, MD, FACC, FASE

Board-certified cardiologist

R. Todd Hurst, MD, FACC, FASE, is a board-certified cardiologist, director of the Center for Cardiovascular Health  at Banner – University Medicine Heart Institute, and associate professor of medicine at the University of Arizona. His goal is to help people understand the power they have to avoid the most feared diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, and dementia.

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