The number of people living with atrial fibrillation (AF) is at an all-time high according to new research undertaken by the University of Leeds and funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

The study, published by The Lancet Regional Health – Europe, found cases of AF in England have increased by 72% over the last two decades - and are now higher than the combined number of people diagnosed with the four most common types of cancer (breast, prostate, lung and bowel).

People from the most deprived communities were 20% more likely to have AF, diagnosed at an earlier age, and had more health conditions at the time of diagnosis compared to the most affluent patients, it found.

The researchers called for policy-based interventions to achieve better health outcomes after finding the socioeconomic gradient in age at diagnosis and comorbidity burden has widened.

Using anonymised GP and hospital data from 3.4 million people in England, the researchers identified patients who had been diagnosed with AF for the first time between 1998 and 2017. Taking age, sex, ethnicity and socioeconomic status into account, they found the number of people diagnosed with AF in England each year increased by 30%, from 117, 880 in 1998 to 202, 333 in 2017.

People with AF are five times more likely to have a stroke, and the stroke is more likely to be debilitating with a lower chance of survival. AF occurs when the steady regular electrical pulses in the top chambers of the heart fire chaotically, causing the chambers to twitch and blood to pool, increasing the risk of clots and life-threatening strokes.

The number of cases increased in men and women across all age groups, and the researchers found health inequalities across geographic regions and socioeconomic groups.

Professor Chris Gale from the University of Leeds said: ‘Changes to healthcare are driven by data, and we’ve created the first blueprint of AF that lays bare the growing impact it is having on society.’

‘Our study paints a clear picture of the trends and gaps that need to be urgently addressed to achieve health equity and prevent unnecessary strokes. We hope that it can be used as a reference point to determine if new interventions and health strategies are successful in curtailing the rising tide of cases and burden that comes with AF.’

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director at the BHF, added: ‘The sheer rise in the number of people now living with AF is staggering. This research highlights the health inequity that exists in AF and emphasises that we need more targeted prevention strategies and new innovations to equip doctors to better detect the condition early so people can benefit from anti-clotting drugs and other life-saving treatment.’