Research at the University of Adelaide has for the first time shown a direct link between obesity and electrical abnormalities of the heart.
Cardiologist and PhD student Hany Abed said there was growing evidence that obesity changed the structure and size of the heart muscle, how it contracted and its electrical function.
Impaired electrical function can lead to irregular heartbeats, including atrial fibrillation, the most common heart rhythm disorder in the world.
Hospital admissions due to atrial fibrillation have more than tripled in Australia over the past 15 years with older, overweight men at most risk.
The condition is also linked directly to strokes and heart attacks.
Dr Abed’s work is seeking to determine how obesity affects the heart and if losing weight can reduce the risk of developing atrial fibrillation.
“We already know that obesity causes an increase in blood pressure and puts strain on the heart,” he said.
“Current basic laboratory research using a sheep model also shows that obesity causes electrical abnormalities in the heart chamber.”
Dr Abed said the health sector estimated that two-thirds of the atrial fibrillation cases expected by 2020 would be solely due to obesity.
But he said the problem with atrial fibrillation was that it was usually picked up incidentally, in health check-ups or when someone suffers dizzy spells, heart palpitations and chest pains.
“Unfortunately, often the first sign of this heart rhythm disorder is when someone has a stroke,” he said.