Background: Nonrheumatic atrial fibrillation is common among the elderly and is associated with an increased risk of stroke. We investigated whether anticoagulation with warfarin would reduce this risk.
Methods: We conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study to evaluate low-intensity anticoagulation with warfarin (prothrombin-time ratio, 1.2 to 1.5) in 571 men with chronic nonrheumatic atrial fibrillation; 525 patients had not previously had a cerebral infarction, whereas 46 patients had previously had such an event. The primary end point was cerebral infarction; secondary end points were cerebral hemorrhage and death.
Results: Among the patients with no history of stroke, cerebral infarction occurred in 19 of the 265 patients in the placebo group during an average follow-up of 1.7 years (4.3 percent per year) and in 4 of the 260 patients in the warfarin group during an average follow-up of 1.8 years (0.9 percent per year). The reduction in risk with warfarin therapy was 0.79 (95 percent confidence interval, 0.52 to 0.90; P = 0.001). The annual event rate among the 228 patients over 70 years of age was 4.8 percent in the placebo group and 0.9 percent in the warfarin group (risk reduction, 0.79; P = 0.02). The only cerebral hemorrhage occurred in a 73-year-old patient in the warfarin group. Other major hemorrhages, all gastrointestinal, occurred in 10 patients: 4 in the placebo group, for a rate of 0.9 percent per year, and 6 in the warfarin group, for a rate of 1.3 percent per year. There were 37 deaths that were not preceded by a cerebral end point--22 in the placebo group and 15 in the warfarin group (risk reduction, 0.31; P = 0.19). Cerebral infarction was more common among patients with a history of cerebral infarction (9.3 percent per year in the placebo group and 6.1 percent per year in the warfarin group) than among those without such a history.
Conclusions: Low-intensity anticoagulation with warfarin prevented cerebral infarction in patients with nonrheumatic atrial fibrillation without producing an excess risk of major hemorrhage. This benefit extended to patients over 70 years of age.