Stroke Risks from Atrial Fibrillation

A stroke is like a heart attack, but in the brain, which is why they are sometimes called “brain attacks.”

Most strokes occur when a blood clot blocks an artery carrying blood to the brain, depriving the brain of oxygen. Those are called ischemic strokes, which account for 87 percent of strokes. When a blood vessel in the brain ruptures, that is a hemorrhagic stroke.1

An afib-related stroke happens when afib causes blood to pool in the heart’s left atrium and form a clot. When the clot breaks loose, it goes to the brain, blocking an artery and depriving the brain of oxygen.

Without oxygen, brain cells die and cannot be restored. This causes permanent disability in the parts of the body controlled by the affected part of the brain.

Severe strokes can cause blindness, difficulty walking and talking, paralysis, permanent disability, or death. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in the US, strokes are the fifth leading cause of death overall and the fourth leading cause of death among those age 65 and over.

As you can see from the statistics below, people with atrial fibrillation have a substantially higher risk of stroke than those without. Not only that, but afib-related strokes tend to be more severe and more likely to lead to death.2

Atrial Fibrillation and Stroke Facts

  • Each year, about 795,000 people have a stroke in the U.S. About 610,000 are first attacks.1
  • Someone has a stroke in the US about every 40 seconds.1
  • People with nonvalvular afib are five times more likely than someone without the condition to have a stroke; those with valvular afib have a risk 17 times higher.2
  • An estimated 22 percent of strokes are related to afib, a figure that has been increasing in recent years.3
  • People with afib are more likely to die from a stroke or be severely disabled than those without afib.3
  • The incidence of afib increases with age.1
  • Women with afib have a higher risk of death from stroke than men. 4

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Transient Ischemic Attack

One type of ischemic (clot) stroke is a transient ischemic attack (TIA), often called a “mini-stroke.” The symptoms from a TIA last only a few minutes and leave no permanent damage. However, as the American Stroke Association warns, a more accurate name for a TIA is a “warning stroke” because the risk of a full-fledged stroke is so high after a TIA.

That’s why it’s so important to call 911 immediately if you think that you or someone else is having a TIA. Getting immediate treatment can substantially reduce the risk of a later stroke.

Reducing the Risk of Stroke in Atrial Fibrillation

About one in three people with afib will have a stroke at some time. Those at greatest risk have other risk factors for a stroke, such as other forms of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, or high cholesterol.

Some of those risk factors are controllable, which can help decrease the risk of a stroke. For example, physical activity can help reduce your risk of a stroke (though afib can leave you without the stamina for physical activity), as can following a healthy lifestyle and lowering your weight. In addition, your doctor will likely prescribe medications designed to reduce your risk of a stroke.

To learn more about strokes, see Stroke Risk Factors or Stroke Warning Signs. To learn more about preventing strokes, see Prevent Strokes or Left Atrial Appendage Occlusion Devices.

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