Atrial fibrillation predisposes to left atrial thrombus formation and carries a sixfold increased risk for stroke. Antithrombotic therapies are the mainstay for stroke prevention. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokesponsored Stroke Prevention in Atrial Fibrillation (SPAF) studies assessed the value of warfarin, aspirin, and their combination for preventing stroke in six multicenter trials involving 3950 participants. This review presents the major results and implications, which offer unique perspectives on antithrombotic therapies for stroke prevention in atrial fibrillation.
Warfarin and aspirin reduce stroke. Anticoagulation substantially benefits high-risk patients with atrial fibrillation, while many younger patients with atrial fibrillation have a low stroke rate when given aspirin. Pathogenetic and transesophageal echocardiographic correlations shed light on mechanisms by which antithrombotic agents prevent stroke. Warfarin inhibits formation of atrial appendage thrombi and markedly reduces cardioembolic strokes, while aspirin primarily prevents smaller, noncardioembolic strokes. The SPAF III stroke risk stratification scheme has been validated for identifying patients with high versus moderate versus low risk for stroke. Women with atrial fibrillation benefit from anticoagulation significantly more than men do. Many elderly patients with recurrent paroxysmal atrial fibrillation have high rates of stroke.
Antithrombotic prophylaxis should be individualized on the basis of the estimated risk for stroke during aspirin therapy and the risk for bleeding during anticoagulation. Overall, nearly one third of patients with atrial fibrillation are low risk and should be treated with aspirin, and about one third are high risk and should receive warfarin if it can be given safely. For patients at moderate risk for stroke, patient preferences and access to reliable anticoagulation monitoring are particularly relevant.
For members of the Stroke Prevention in Atrial Fibrillation Investigators, see the Appendix.