The Role of Statins in Treating and Preventing Afib

April 8, 2024

Pack of statin pills filled with red capsules

Atrial fibrillation, also called Afib or AF, affects over 33 million people worldwide. Afib is an irregular (arrhythmia) and often rapid heartbeat that can lead to many complications, including stroke and heart failure. Recent studies have shown that statin drugs – usually prescribed for high cholesterol – may help treat and prevent Afib.

To understand Afib, we need to first understand the heart. The heart is separated into four chambers: the atria are at the top, and the ventricles are at the bottom. Blood flows into the atria, then to the ventricles, and then throughout the body. The heartbeat is regulated by an electrical system that starts with a signal in the right atrium.

In atrial fibrillation, an abnormal electrical signal causes the atria to quiver (fibrillate). When this happens, blood may stagnate in the heart or not uptake enough oxygen from the lungs. This can lead to symptoms and complications, some of which are life-threatening.

Not all people with Afib experience symptoms. However, the most reported symptoms are palpitations (a fluttery feeling in your chest), shortness of breath (can’t catch your breath), and fatigue (feeling tired all the time). If you experience unusual or unexpected chest pain, don’t delay in seeking emergency care.

What Causes Afib?

Many factors contribute to Afib’s development, including age, hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity, heart disease, and other chronic health conditions. There is evidence to suggest inflammation and oxidative stress can also cause atrial fibrillation.

Afib can also occur post-surgically (both cardiac and non-cardiac), as the inflammatory processes post-operatively can increase that risk. Oxidative stress is caused by an imbalance of unstable molecules in the blood called free radicals. Antioxidants in the blood typically regulate free radicals, but when they are low, the imbalance leads to oxidative stress. This, in turn, leads to other chronic conditions such as inflammation and possibly Afib.

What Are Statin Drugs?

Statin drugs are so called because their names end in “statin.” Common statin drugs include Atorvastatin (Lipitor), Rosuvastatin (Crestor), and Simvastatin (Zocor).

Statins reduce the amount of cholesterol in the blood by keeping it from forming in the liver. They lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and blood fats (triglycerides) and increase good cholesterol (HDL). Statins also have anti-inflammatory properties, and this trait is thought to contribute to the treatment and prevention of Afib.

How Statins Are Used in the Treatment of Afib

Research published in the Netherlands Heart Journal highlights statins’ role in stabilizing the heart’s electrical activity. They note that statins may improve blood flow, suppress inflammation, and regulate the cardiovascular system, which has an anti-arrhythmic effect on the body.

How Statins Might Be Used to Prevent Afib

A meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology examines the relationship between the use of statin drugs and reduced risk of atrial fibrillation. Statins improve blood flow, reduce oxidative stress, and help regulate automatic body functions. This helps to support the integrity of the heart’s electrical function and reduce the likelihood of arrhythmias. The authors suggest that higher-risk patients—those with hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, or heart disease—who take statins are less likely to develop Afib.

Statin drugs taken to treat high cholesterol may have the secondary effect of reducing the occurrence of atrial fibrillation, but this is neither predictable nor should it be considered the frontline treatment for any arrhythmia. While this is promising research for the millions affected by Afib around the world, tried and true minimally invasive procedural options like cardiac catheter ablation or pulsed field ablation. By employing a wide range of therapies, we can improve heart health and rhythm, helping patients reduce the risk of several life-threatening events, including heart attack and stroke.