Obesity tied to irregular heart rhythm in men and women

May 21, 2018 in Heart Health, Nutrition Topics in the News, Weight Management

Obesity tied to irregular heart rhythm in men and women

Both men and women who are overweight or obese may be more likely to develop an irregular heart rhythm condition known as atrial fibrillation than their peers who maintain a healthy weight, a recent study from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia suggests. 

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm disorder, affecting approximately 2 to 3 percent of the world’s population. The disorder most often develops after age 50.  In atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart, or atria, quiver instead of beating to move blood effectively.

While the condition has long been linked to obesity, the new study offers fresh evidence of how gender may impact the risk of atrial fibrillation associated with excess weight. 

Extremely obese men, for example, were more than four times more likely to develop atrial fibrillation than men who maintained a healthy weight. By contrast, extremely obese women had almost twice the risk of developing atrial fibrillation (AF) as women at a healthy weight. 

Being overweight/obese changes the structure of the heart, making it more susceptible to developing AF. As well, other risk factors for AF, like high blood pressure, are more likely to exist in overweight and obese individuals. 

About the study

For the study, researchers examined survey data from 24,799 adults in Norway who were followed for an average of 16 years to see how their weight impacted their chance of developing atrial fibrillation. 

At the start of the study, participants were typically in their mid- to late- 30s. Most of them also started out at a healthy weight based on their body mass index (BMI) – a ratio of weight to height. 

During the study period, 811 men and 918 women developed atrial fibrillation. 

Even when people weren’t seriously overweight, a higher BMI was still tied with a higher risk for atrial fibrillation. For example, compared to a BMI of 23, which falls within a healthy weight range, men with a BMI of 25, which is slightly overweight, were 14 percent more likely to develop atrial fibrillation. 

When men had a BMI of 18, which is underweight, they were 25 percent less likely to develop atrial fibrillation than men with a BMI of 23. Men with a BMI of 20, meanwhile, were 14 percent less likely to develop atrial fibrillation than men with a BMI of 23. 

For women, the pattern was similar at lower weights but as with heavier individuals, the association between obesity and atrial fibrillation wasn’t as strong as it was with men. 


The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how obesity causes atrial fibrillation. Researchers also lacked data on changes over time in medical conditions or medication use that might independently influence the risk of atrial fibrillation. 

Still, the study adds to the evidence linking excess weight to a higher risk of atrial fibrillation. 

While the study finds the relationship was stronger in men, both men and women who were overweight or obese according to their body mass index were at increased risk for atrial fibrillation.

Losing even a little weight may help lower the risk. who wasn’t involved in the study. 

Source:  Journal of the American Heart Association, online April 19, 2018

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