Righting a Wrong Heartbeat With Weight Loss

Weight loss program helped overweight atrial fibrillation patients slow heartbeats and lessen dependence on medicines

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) The hearts of people with atrial fibrillation beat too fast, which can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening problems. Weight loss might help some patients correct that heartbeat.

Planned weight loss helped overweight and obese patients in a newly released study return their irregular heartbeats closer to a normal pace.

Being overweight is considered a trigger for atrial fibrillation. Though symptoms of the disorder aren't always easy to notice, heart palpitations or flutterings can be signs that a person has atrial fibrillation.

"Ask your doctor about heart healthy practices."

Hany S. Abed, BPharm, MBBS, of the University of Adelaide and Royal Adelaide Hospital in Adelaide, Australia, was lead author of this study.

Abed's research team set out to evaluate the impact of a structured weight loss program on patients with atrial fibrillation.

In June 2010, their study enrolled a total of 150 atrial fibrillation patients aged 21 to 75 from the University of Adelaide's Centre for Heart Rhythm Disorders.

Half of the 150 were randomly assigned to a weight management program that doctors supervised. It included low calorie meals and exercise that got more intense over time.

The other half of study participants received general advice on the type of diet and exercise that make for a healthy lifestyle but no weight loss program. They were left to lose weight on their own.

Also, those in both groups who were not taking blood thinner medications were given fish oil supplements, which some studies have been linked to lower blood pressure and better heart health.

The researchers monitored the activities of both groups for 15 months on average, until December 2011.

During that period, the researchers measured participants' weight and heartbeat rates every three months.

The researchers also monitored blood pressure, blood sugars, blood fats, alcohol and tobacco use and sleep apnea, a pattern of irregular breathing that often is associated with being overweight. Abnormalities in any of those areas have been linked to irregular heartbeats.

The 75 patients who did participate in a weight loss program lost an average of 33 pounds during the 15 months of that study.

The patients in the weight loss program experienced a greater decline in the severity of their fast, irregular heartbeats and the length of time those heartbeats lasted than did the other 75 study participants.

Those in the weight loss program also lost more belly fat, which previous research has linked to heart disease and heart attacks.

The other 75 participants who did not do the weight loss program lost an average of 12.5 pounds.

“In this study, a structured weight management program for highly symptomatic patients with atrial fibrillation reduced symptom burden and severity and reduced antiarrhythmic [prescription drug] use" more than it did in study participants trying to manage weight loss on their own, the study authors wrote.

The number of people with irregular heartbeats has steadily worsened in recent years, these researchers noted. In the US alone, 12 to 15 million people — the current US population is about 314 million — are projected to have atrial fibrillation by 2050. 

"Although population aging is regarded as an important contributor, obesity may account for a substantial proportion of the increasing prevalence” of atrial fibrillation, these researchers wrote.

Obesity rates also have soared.

"Much attention and many resources are directed towards symptom relief for patients with atrial fibrillation. Medications, catheter-based ablation, and surgical therapies are widely used. Weight loss, it has been shown, also significantly can reduce atrial fibrillation symptom burden as well as atrial fibrillation frequency - two great challenges in treating atrial fibrillation, Adam Shapira, MD, Medical Director, Electrophysiology at The Heart Hospital Baylor Plano, told dailyRx News."

"Treating atrial fibrillation with weight loss, along with other strategies, is a low-risk measure that also offers benefits far beyond the the treatment of atrial fibrillation itself," Dr. Shapira said.

This study was published online November 17 in JAMA.

The University of Adelaide's Centre for Heart Rhythm Disorders and Abbott Australia funded the study. Several of its authors have received consulting and lecturing fees from pharmaceutical companies and makers of medical devices. 

Review Date: 
November 15, 2013
Last Updated:
December 30, 2013