Excess Pounds Raise Atrial Fibrillation Risk

Medically Reviewed

Your risk of developing atrial fibrillation, or a fast, irregular, and chaotic heartbeat, may rise in tandem with your weight. In addition, health problems linked to obesity—like high blood pressure and diabetes—can contribute to atrial fibrillation.

A recent article in the American Heart Journal analyzed 16 studies from two groups of people: 78,600 European adults and about 45,000 heart surgery patients. In the first group, overweight adults were 39 percent more likely, and obese adults 87 percent more likely, to develop atrial fibrillation than their normal-weight counterparts.

But obesity didn’t increase atrial fibrillation risk among those in the second group—the patients who’d had heart surgery. Although atrial fibrillation is a fairly common complication after certain heart procedures, such as bypass surgery, postsurgical atrial fibrillation may arise for reasons that differ from those in the general population.

In people who have not had heart surgery, excess pounds may contribute to atrial fibrillation by causing an enlargement of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber. This, in turn, may cause the atria to enlarge.

Our advice: Atrial fibrillation may be another addition to the list of reasons to control your weight with a heart-healthy diet and regular exercise. The most important step someone can take to reduce the risk of developing atrial fibrillation is to avoid becoming obese.

More and more data has confirmed the link between obesity and atrial fibrillation, and there is also data showing that weight reduction can lower the risk and improve the outcomes of atrial fibrillation ablation.

It’s also important to avoid hypertension—or, if you have it, to treat it aggressively. And anyone who is at risk should avoid drinking high levels of alcohol. Most patients can tolerate small amounts of alcohol and caffeine without triggering an episode of atrial fibrillation.