Atrial fibrillation is the most common cardiac arrhythmia in adults. The prevalence of atrial fibrillation rises with age, reaching as high as 9% in those 70 years and older. Currently there are 2.2 million affected people in the United States, with twice the mortality rate of age-matched controls in sinus rhythm. Epidemiologic studies show atrial fibrillation to be responsible for as many as 15% of the total number of strokes, a higher incidence of dementia, cardiac function compromise, and decreased quality of life. Recent studies indicate that rate control and rhythm restoration are equally effective strategies in the treatment of atrial fibrillation, with a trend toward better survival in patients treated for rate control and anticoagulation. Data from several randomized controlled studies on stroke prophylaxis provided consistent evidence of the superiority of adjusted-dose warfarin over aspirin. Guidelines developed by the American College of Cardiology, the American Heart Association, the European Society of Cardiology, and ACCP provide a convenient decision-making framework for the practicing physician. The safety and effectiveness of anticoagulation in clinical practice were found to be equal to those in major trials with rigorous controls. Despite the proven effectiveness and safety of oral anticoagulation for thromboembolism prophylaxis in atrial fibrillation, warfarin remains underused, especially among the elderly (75 years and older), who are at the greatest risk of stroke and would likely benefit the most from prophylactic anticoagulation.
*Chairman and †Resident Physician, Department of Medicine, Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
Correspondence to Michael D. Ezekowitz, MBChB, DPhil, FACC, Drexel University College of Medicine, Department of Medicine, 245 N. 15th Street, Mail Stop 487, Philadelphia, PA 19102, USA; e-mail: Michael.D.Ezekowitz@drexel.edu