Atrial fibrillation (AF) continues to impose a significant burden upon healthcare resources. A sustained increase in the ageing population and better survival from conditions such as ischaemic heart disease have ensured that both the incidence and prevalence of AF continue to increase significantly. AF can lead to complications such as embolism and heart failure and these acting in concert with its associated co-morbidities portend increased mortality risk. Whilst some studies suggest that the mortality risk from AF is due to the “bad company it keeps” i.e. the associated co-morbidities rather than AF itself; undoubtedly some of the mortality is also due to the side-effects of various therapeutic strategies (anti-arrhythmic drugs, bleeding side-effects due to anti-coagulants or invasive procedures). Despite several treatment advances including newer anti-arrhythmic drugs and developments in catheter ablation, anti-coagulation remains the only effective means to reduce the mortality due to AF. Warfarin has been used as the oral anticoagulant in the treatment of AF for many years but suffers from disadvantages such as unpredictable INR levels, bleeding risks and need for haematological monitoring. This has therefore spurred a renewed interest in research and clinical studies directed towards developing safer and more efficacious anti-coagulants. We shall review in this article the epidemiological features of AF-related mortality from several studies as well as the cardiovascular and non-cardiac mortality mechanisms. We shall also elucidate why a rhythm control strategy has appeared to be counter-productive and attempt to predict the likely future impact of novel anti-coagulants upon mortality reduction in AF.
Keywords: Atrial fibrillation, arrhythmia, mortality, anti-arrhythmic drugs.