Tackling Obesity May Ease a Dangerous Irregular Heartbeat

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MONDAY, March 16, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- There's good news for people who are obese and have atrial fibrillation, a common form of irregular heartbeat: Losing weight may help restore healthy heart rhythm.

That's the finding from a new Australian study involving 355 obese people with atrial fibrillation. Researchers led by cardiologist Dr. Rajeev Pathak, of the University of Adelaide, tracked outcomes for the patients for four years while they tried to lose weight.

The researchers found that those who lost at least 10 percent of their body weight were six times more likely to be free of atrial fibrillation symptoms -- without the use of surgery or medication -- compared to those who did not lose weight.

Over four years, 45 percent of patients who lost at least 10 percent of body weight were free of atrial fibrillation symptoms without treatment. Only 13 percent of participants who lost less than 3 percent of their body weight stopped having symptoms, Pathak's team reported.

The findings were to be presented Monday in San Diego at the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology (ACC). They are also published simultaneously in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

According to the ACC, about 5.6 million American adults have atrial fibrillation, which causes symptoms such as palpitations and shortness of breath. It also increases the risk of stroke.

The new study found that just losing excess weight wasn't enough -- keeping it from coming back was key. People who had major fluctuations in their weight (gains and losses of more than 5 percent) between yearly checkups were twice as likely to have recurrent heart rhythm problems than those who did not have such weight fluctuations, the researchers said.

"Previous studies have shown that weight management can reduce atrial fibrillation symptoms," Pathak said in an ACC news release. He said that prior studies also showed that weight loss boosted the benefits of ablation, a procedure used to treat atrial fibrillation.

In the new study, his team "sought to shed light on the long-term outcomes of sustained weight loss, the effects of the amount of weight lost and the impact of changes in weight over time," he explained.

"We found that sustained weight loss is achievable in obese patients and that it can significantly reduce the burden of atrial fibrillation," Pathak said. "Weight loss also led to favorable changes in cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, obstructive sleep apnea and diabetes, along with improvements in the structure and function of the heart."

More information

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about atrial fibrillation.