Help pack a million meals for struggling seniors on 9-11. Volunteer today


AARP Staying Sharp: Keep Your Brain Healthy


The tablet with free 24/7 customer support. Learn More


Military and Veterans Discount



AARP Games - Play Now!


Learn From the Experts

Sign up now for an upcoming webinar or find materials from a past session.


Planning for Long-Term Care for Dummies

Get expert advice on planning for your own or a relative’s future care needs.

Learning centers

Get smart strategies for managing health conditions.



Heart Disease


Most Popular


Health Discovery

Surgery More Effective Than Drugs in Treating Irregular Heartbeat

Catheter ablation may be the best option for people with atrial fibrillation after medication fails.

Study Findings

  • A surgical treatment that burns parts of the heart may be the best option for people with a common abnormal heart rhythm when medication fails, according to a new study.

When muscles in the atria, the upper chambers of the heart, quiver erratically, the result is a rapid and irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation, a condition that affects more than 2 million Americans a year and accounts for 15 percent of all strokes. The condition becomes more common—and more dangerous—as people age. Between 3 and 5 percent of people over age 65 have it.

Medication is the first choice of treatment but is ineffective half the time. Now David Wilber, M.D., and his colleagues at the Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago report on a second compelling option that relieves symptoms and improves quality of life.

The researchers looked at 167 patients who had unsuccessfully used drugs to control irregular heartbeat. The participants, whose average age was 55, were divided into two groups: 61 of them were given another medication. The rest were treated with catheter ablation, a procedure in which a thin flexible tube is guided through the veins and into the heart’s atrium. Then electrical impulses destroy (ablate) the source of the irregular heartbeat by searing the heart muscle and forming a scar. The scar acts as a barrier to keep the abnormal quivering from jumping to the rest of the heart and causing the irregular beating.

“It’s like creating a firebreak,” says Wilber, director of Loyola’s Cardiovascular Institute and lead author.

The result: One year later, 66 percent of the patients whose heart tissue was burned experienced no irregular heartbeat, compared with 16 percent of those who used medication. In the head-to-head comparison, the procedure worked so much better than drugs that researchers halted the trial early.

But J. Michael Mangrum, M.D., director of the Atrial Fibrillation Center at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville, warns that the findings can’t be applied to everyone with atrial fibrillation because researchers studied only patients with a type of the irregular heartbeat that occurs intermittently.

“While this study provides additional evidence of the benefit of this treatment, subjects were limited to . . . only about 20 to 30 percent of the larger group,” Mangrum says.

The study comparing treatment (drug therapy versus catheter ablation) was published online in the January 27 Journal of the American Medical Association. It was funded by Biosense Webster, which provided the catheters.

Cathie Gandel is a freelance writer based in New York.

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts


Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.


Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Walgreens 1 discount membership aarp

Members can earn 50 points per $1 spent on select health & wellness products at Walgreens.

member benefit aarp hear usa

Members save 15% on easy listening devices and more at the HearUSA Hearing Shop.

Eye Med 4 Membership Benefit AARP Discount

Members save up to 60% on eye exams and 30% on glasses at Target Optical.

Membership Benefits Discounts Email Genius

Brain boost? Get AARP email for access to memory exercises & more that help you focus.

Rewards for Good

Your Points Balance:

Learn More

Earn points for completing free online activities designed to enrich your life.

Find more ways to earn points

Redeem your points to save on merchandise, travel, and more.

Find more ways to redeem points