Longer monitoring hailed for detecting more A-fib: research
TORONTO—A heart-rhythm disorder called atrial fibrillation is on the rise among older Canadians but standard testing often doesn’t detect the condition—leaving patients untreated and prone to potentially-disabling or fatal strokes.
Among those who have had a stroke, standard testing includes wearing a portable electrocardiogram for 24 hours to check for episodes of an irregular heartbeat.
“Atrial fibrillation can be notoriously difficult to diagnose because it is often silent and comes and goes intermittently, so it can be a hidden risk factor for stroke,” said Dr. David Gladstone, director of the stroke prevention clinic at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
“Strokes related to atrial fibrillation are often devastating, causing long-term disability, dementia, and death,” Gladstone noted yesterday.
“They tend to be more severe and disabling and deadly than strokes due to other causes.”
The Toronto neurologist is principal investigator of the EMBRACE trial, one of two major studies published today in the New England Journal of Medicine that found a more successful method of detecting the disorder.
Simply put, the two teams kept patients on heart monitors longer—for 30 days in the Sunnybrook-led Canadian trial, using a wearable device, and up to three years with an implantable monitor for patients in the CRYSTAL AF study, a collaboration among European, U.S., and Canadian researchers.
Gladstone’s team, which included more than 50 researchers across the country, looked at 572 patients who had suffered an unexplained stroke or TIA (transient ischemic attack), half of whom randomly were assigned to wear a heart monitor for 24 hours while the other half were kept on the device for 30 days.
“We found a five-fold increase in the detection of silent atrial fibrillation compared to the standard method,” he noted.
Among patients in the 24-hour ECG group, three percent were found to have atrial fibrillation while the month-long monitoring turned up 16 percent of participants with the fluttery-heart disorder.
In the CRYSTAL AF trial of 441 patients who had experienced a stroke with an unknown cause, the heart rhythm disorder had been detected after six months in nine percent of patients with an implanted heart monitor, compared to two percent in the control group.
At 12 months, A-fib was found in more than 12 percent of patients with the implanted monitor, versus two percent in the other group.
“One in every four strokes is of unknown cause,” said Gladstone. “So it has remained a mystery for years.
“And this research is helping to give us a better understanding about cryptogenic stroke [of unknown origin] and it suggests that atrial fibrillation may be a much more common risk factor than previously appreciated.”
Stroke is the second-leading cause of death worldwide, and in Canada someone has a stroke every 10 minutes, Gladstone pointed out.
“We’ve got to change those statistics,” he stressed.
“And one way to do that is through early detection of atrial fibrillation, which is one of the most treatable risk factors for stroke.”
The disorder occurs in the upper left chamber of the heart and causes the heart to beat quickly or with an irregular pattern.
That means the blood doesn’t get pumped properly—and that can lead to a clot forming, which may travel to the brain, block an artery, and result in a potentially neuron-destroying stroke.
Patients are treated with an anticoagulant, or blood-thinning, medication such as warfarin, which stops the formation of clots and prevents recurrent strokes.
Gladstone said the results of the EMBRACE trial already have led Sunnybrook’s stroke clinic to begin changing practice by providing some patients with advanced heart-monitoring devices to wear for a prolonged period.