Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common arrhythmia worldwide. The prevalence of AF in persons older than 55 years is at least 33.5 million globally and is predicted to more than double in the next half-century. Anticoagulation, heart rate control, and heart rhythm control comprise the 3 main treatment strategies in AF.
Anticoagulation is aimed at preventing debilitating stroke, systemic embolism, and associated mortality. Historically, anticoagulation in AF was achieved with a vitamin K antagonist such as warfarin, which is supported by evidence demonstrating reduced incident stroke and all-cause mortality. However, warfarin has unpredictable pharmacokinetics with many drug-drug interactions that require regular monitoring to ensure patients remain in the therapeutic anticoagulant range.
Non–vitamin K antagonist oral anticoagulants including dabigatran, rivaroxaban, apixaban, and edoxaban provide a possible solution to these issues with their more predictable pharmacokinetics, rapid onset of action, and greater specificity. Results from large randomized, controlled trials indicate that these agents are at least noninferior to warfarin in prevention of stroke. These trials also demonstrate a consistently lower incidence of intracranial hemorrhage, almost always all life-threatening bleeds, and many forms of major bleeds with the possible exception of gastrointestinal and some other forms of mucosal bleeding, compared with warfarin.
Patients with AF are a heterogeneous population with diverse risk of stroke and bleeding, and different subgroups respond differently to anticoagulation. Important clinical questions have arisen regarding optimal anticoagulation drug selection in distinct populations such as those with renal impairment, older age, coronary artery disease, and heart failure as well as those at particularly high risk for bleeding or thromboembolism. In this review, treatment strategies in AF management are discussed in the context of different individual subgroups of patients.