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The clinical profile and pathophysiology of atrial fibrillation: relationships among clinical features, epidemiology, and mechanisms

Jason Andrade, Paul Khairy, Dobromir Dobrev, Stanley Nattel
Circulation Research 2014 April 25, 114 (9): 1453-68
24763464
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common arrhythmia (estimated lifetime risk, 22%-26%). The aim of this article is to review the clinical epidemiological features of AF and to relate them to underlying mechanisms. Long-established risk factors for AF include aging, male sex, hypertension, valve disease, left ventricular dysfunction, obesity, and alcohol consumption. Emerging risk factors include prehypertension, increased pulse pressure, obstructive sleep apnea, high-level physical training, diastolic dysfunction, predisposing gene variants, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and congenital heart disease. Potential risk factors are coronary artery disease, kidney disease, systemic inflammation, pericardial fat, and tobacco use. AF has substantial population health consequences, including impaired quality of life, increased hospitalization rates, stroke occurrence, and increased medical costs. The pathophysiology of AF centers around 4 general types of disturbances that promote ectopic firing and reentrant mechanisms, and include the following: (1) ion channel dysfunction, (2) Ca(2+)-handling abnormalities, (3) structural remodeling, and (4) autonomic neural dysregulation. Aging, hypertension, valve disease, heart failure, myocardial infarction, obesity, smoking, diabetes mellitus, thyroid dysfunction, and endurance exercise training all cause structural remodeling. Heart failure and prior atrial infarction also cause Ca(2+)-handling abnormalities that lead to focal ectopic firing via delayed afterdepolarizations/triggered activity. Neural dysregulation is central to atrial arrhythmogenesis associated with endurance exercise training and occlusive coronary artery disease. Monogenic causes of AF typically promote the arrhythmia via ion channel dysfunction, but the mechanisms of the more common polygenic risk factors are still poorly understood and under intense investigation. Better recognition of the clinical epidemiology of AF, as well as an improved appreciation of the underlying mechanisms, is needed to develop improved methods for AF prevention and management.

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