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Europace. 2011 Mar;13(3):308-28. doi: 10.1093/europace/eur002.

Upstream therapies for management of atrial fibrillation: review of clinical evidence and implications for European Society of Cardiology guidelines. Part I: primary prevention.

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  • 1Division of Cardiac and Vascular Sciences, St George's University of London, Cranmer Terrace, London SW17 0RE, UK.


Atrial fibrillation (AF) is associated with significant morbidity and mortality. It is also a progressive disease secondary to continuous structural remodelling of the atria due to AF itself, to changes associated with ageing, and to deterioration of underlying heart disease. Current management aims at preventing the recurrence of AF and its consequences (secondary prevention) and includes risk assessment and prevention of stroke, ventricular rate control, and rhythm control therapies including antiarrhythmic drugs and catheter or surgical ablation. The concept of primary prevention of AF with interventions targeting the development of substrate and modifying risk factors for AF has emerged as a result of recent experiments that suggested novel targets for mechanism-based therapies. Upstream therapy refers to the use of non-antiarrhythmic drugs that modify the atrial substrate- or target-specific mechanisms of AF to prevent the occurrence or recurrence of the arrhythmia. Such agents include angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACEIs), angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs), statins, n-3 (ω-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids, and possibly corticosteroids. Animal experiments have compellingly demonstrated the protective effect of these agents against electrical and structural atrial remodelling in association with AF. The key targets of upstream therapy are structural changes in the atria, such as fibrosis, hypertrophy, inflammation, and oxidative stress, but direct and indirect effects on atrial ion channels, gap junctions, and calcium handling are also applied. Although there have been no formal randomized controlled studies (RCTs) in the primary prevention setting, retrospective analyses and reports from the studies in which AF was a pre-specified secondary endpoint have shown a sustained reduction in new-onset AF with ACEIs and ARBs in patients with significant underlying heart disease (e.g. left ventricular dysfunction and hypertrophy), and in the incidence of AF after cardiac surgery in patients treated with statins. In the secondary prevention setting, the results with upstream therapies are significantly less encouraging. Although the results of hypothesis-generating small clinical studies or retrospective analyses in selected patient categories have been positive, larger prospective RCTs have yielded controversial, mostly negative, results. Notably, the controversy exists on whether upstream therapy may impact mortality and major non-fatal cardiovascular events in patients with AF. This has been addressed in retrospective analyses and large prospective RCTs, but the results remain inconclusive pending further reports. This review provides a contemporary evidence-based insight into the role of upstream therapies in primary (Part I) and secondary (Part II) prevention of AF.

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