News Release

Your genes determine your risk of atrial fibrillation

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Copenhagen - The Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

Your genes influence your risk of developing the heart condition atrial fibrillation, a large-scale genetic survey shows. This may prevent cases of atrial fibrillation and lead to better and more precise treatment.

As many as one third of all Danes may at some point in life develop the cardiac arrythmia atrial fibrillation, which can cause palpitations, chest discomfort and shortness of breath and increases the risk of heart failure and stroke.

We know that atrial fibrillation can be hereditary, and that genetics can either increase or decrease a person’s chances of developing the condition.

Now researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Rigshospitalet have studied the role of genetics on atrial fibrillation development. To do this, they applied a so-called genetic risk score for atrial fibrillation to more than 400,000 individuals from the large, international UK Biobank.

“We can tell that those with a high genetic risk score for atrial fibrillation have significantly increased risk of developing the condition – especially if they also experience classic risk factors for atrial fibrillation such as hypertension and obesity,” says MD and PhD Fellow at the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Rigshospitalet Oliver Bundgaard Vad.

A genetic risk score is based on knowledge of genetic variations which suggest that a person is predisposed to atrial fibrillation. While some variations increase your risk slightly, others lower it. Using computer calculations, the researchers were able to study the significance of these common variations and calculate each person’s overall genetic disposition to atrial fibrillation.

Genetic changes increase the risk of atrial fibrillation

The researchers also studied the effect of rare genetic changes in almost 18,000 different genes. They identified six genes for which genetic changes appear to significantly affect a person’s risk of developing atrial fibrillation.

Around one per cent of the participants were carriers of such rare genetic changes in one of these genes. When combined with their overall genetic risk, this could significantly increase their risk of developing atrial fibrillation.

“If you both have a high overall genetic risk score and changes in one of the identified genes, your risk of developing atrial fibrillation appears to be almost five times as high as usual,” says Professor Morten Salling Olesen from the University of Copenhagen, who stresses that the identified genetic changes are found in a very small percentage of the population and therefore should not be a cause for concern for persons suffering from atrial fibrillation.

Better and more precise treatment

Genetic tests are not currently part of the diagnostic process or treatment for atrial fibrillation. But the researchers hope the new study will eventually lead to better treatment and understanding of the disease.

“A lot of people suffer from atrial fibrillation. If genetic insight can help us determine who develop the condition and why, we may also be able to design more precise treatment and identify those at high risk early on and thus prevent cases of atrial fibrillation,” says Oliver Bundgaard Vad.

The study, ”Rare and Common Genetic Variation Underlying Atrial Fibrillation Risk”, has been published in JAMA Cardiology.

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