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MONDAY, May 15, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Hundreds of thousands of strokes might be prevented in the United States each year if more people with a heart rhythm disorder called atrial fibrillation took blood-thinning medications, a new study estimates.
Atrial fibrillation causes the heart to quiver instead of beating normally. This causes blood to pool and possibly clot, according to the American Heart Association. If one of those clots breaks free, it can go to the brain and cause a stroke.
"Though not a life-threatening rhythm abnormality per se, atrial fibrillation can be associated with devastating life-altering consequences, namely disabling stroke," said one expert, Dr. Nicholas Skipitaris. He directs cardiac electrophysiology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Unfortunately, too few people are getting the treatment for "a-fib" that they need, the new study found. Taking blood thinners might reduce these patients' stroke risk by two-thirds, according to the authors of the study published May 15 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
In the new research, a team led by Dr. Lucas Marzec tracked data on 655,000 atrial fibrillation patients treated by cardiologists nationwide over seven years.
The study found that 4 in 10 of the patients weren't getting the blood thinners they needed to cut their stroke risk. Plus, up to 35 percent of patients who were taking the drugs weren't getting them at the recommended amount.
"We need to continue to support research to better understand why [blood thinners] are not being prescribed to the people who need them, so ultimately we reduce strokes in patients at risk," Marzec said in a journal news release. He's a clinical cardiac electrophysiologist at the University of Colorado.
Another expert who reviewed the new study agreed more must be done.
"Atrial fibrillation is a major cause of stroke -- at older ages, it is almost the single leading cause," said Dr. Richard Libman, vice chair of neurology at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
And while blood thinners do come with a slight risk of excess bleeding, "the benefits of these anticoagulants far outweigh the risks," Libman believes.
"Sometimes, anticoagulants are withheld simply because the person is old or beyond a certain age," he added, "but these older people are actually at increased risk of stroke from atrial fibrillation, and stand to benefit from taking these medications."
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCES: Nicholas Skipitaris, M.D., director, cardiac electrophysiology, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Richard Libman, M.D., vice chair, neurology, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; Journal of the American College of Cardiology, news release, May 15, 2017