Thousands of people with the heart condition atrial fibrillation, which causes irregular or abnormally fast heart rates, could be saved from strokes, disability or death.

New guidance by NICE  highlights the need to ensure people with atrial fibrillation (AF) are offered the right treatments to reduce their chance of dying from strokes.

Atrial fibrillation happens when abnormal electrical signals fire from the top chambers of the heart (the atria). The chambers contract randomly and override the heart's natural pacemaker. The condition affects around 800,000 people in the UK, but it's thought around 250,000 others may be undiagnosed. Symptoms can include heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath and fatigue.

“Atrial fibrillation is a major cause of stroke because it often leads to the formation of blood clots. We know that AF increases the risk of strokes by up to five times. It's estimated that the condition causes around 12,500 strokes each year,” says Professor Mark Baker, NICE's Director of Clinical Practice.

“We also know that that around 7,000 strokes and 2,000 premature deaths could be avoided every year through effective detection and protection with anticoagulant drugs that prevent blood clots forming.

“Unfortunately only half of those who should be getting these drugs, are. This needs to change if we are to reduce the numbers of people with AF who die needlessly or suffer life-changing disability as a result of avoidable strokes.”

The causes of atrial fibrillation are not fully understood. It affects more men than women. It is more common as people age – around 1 in 10 people aged over 65 have atrial fibrillation. It is also more common in people with other heart conditions such as high blood pressure or clogged arteries (atherosclerosis).