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Stroke risk tied to inflammatory diseases

People with two common inflammatory diseases stand a higher chance of developing a heart condition that is strongly associated with stroke, a new study suggests.

The study, done at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, found that patients with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis have a 60 percent increased risk for atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) linked to stroke.

Pointing to a recent jump in atrial fibrillation cases, one of the study's authors said it was important to understand all the possible sources of the disease.

"We are in the middle of an epidemic of AF [atrial fibrillation]," said Dr. Abhishek Deshmukh, one of the study's authors. He is a cardiology fellow at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center in Little Rock. "The numbers have gone sky high as people are living longer. AF tends to affect older people more."

About 2.2 million Americans have atrial fibrillation, according to the American Heart Association. The condition causes the heart to beat erratically and fail to pump all the blood out of the atria, two upper heart chambers. The blood pools, which may produce clots the heart "throws" from the chamber. The clots may lodge in an artery in the brain, causing a stroke. About 15 percent of strokes occur this way, according to the association.

Deshmukh said researchers suspected that atrial fibrillation might be linked to systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis because the two autoimmune conditions cause inflammation, which scientists believe plays a role in heart disease. Almost 3 million Americans have one of the two diseases, according to the Arthritis Foundation and the Lupus Foundation of America.

Signs of atrial fibrillation include fluttering of the heart, dizziness, sweating, confusion, weakness, shortness of breath and anxiety, although sometimes no symptoms are felt.

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