New research into the most common form of cardiac arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation (a-fib), suggests the condition is linked with blood vessel damage of the eyes and kidneys, according to scientists from Johns Hopkins University.

Researchers led by Sunil Agarwal presented the team’s findings at Monday’s annual American Heart Association meeting in Dallas. Though their results are still preliminary, pending peer review, their study into a-fib yielded dramatic increases in occurrence rates when patients also suffered from microvascular changes. While roughly six out of every 1,000 people without the changes suffered from a-fib, that rate rose to 24 out of every 1,000 when both disorders were present.

"This [study] suggests that a potential trigger for developing atrial fibrillation may be worsening microvascular disease," Dr. Neil Sanghvi, an electrophysiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital who was not involved with the study, told Health Day. "Therefore, treatments that are able to minimize or prevent microvascular damage may be able to decrease the incidence of atrial fibrillation."

A-fib is marked by an increasing heart rate, palpitations, chest pain, or congestive heart failure. Affecting roughly 2.66 million people in the U.S., the condition has genetic roots but may also arise from high blood pressure, lung diseases, excessive alcohol consumption (middle-aged women consuming two drinks daily were found 60 percent more likely to have a-fib), primary heart diseases, and hyperthyroidism.

Agarwal and his team followed over 10,000 middle-aged people for an average of 14 years. Subjects were found more likely to suffer from a-fib when they also experienced micro-bleeds and micro-aneurysms of the eye – an increase from six people per 1,000 to nine per 1,000. Additionally, the rate of a-fib incidence rose among subjects experiencing kidney vessel damage to 17 per 1,000; and finally, to 24 per 1,000 when both damage sources were present.

Dr. Kenneth Ong, interim chief of cardiology at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, explained to Health Day that the eyes and kidney are frequently used as windows into many diseases. What’s less clear to scientists is the mechanism behind the link – why, exactly, a disruption in cardiac processes is signaled by tiny points of bleeding in the eyes in kidneys. Ong added, however, that he believes it’s “reasonable to speculate” that such markers indicate a greater risk for heart disease.

Experts suggest these findings may allow doctors to catch early cases of a-fib with supplementary examinations of surrounding vessels. What’s more, people who experience vessel damage should be wary of exerting too much effort without the proper consent from their doctor. Sanghvi recommended patients "should consider long-term monitoring, on the order of one or two weeks," in order to assess the risk for developing atrial fibrillation before more dire symptoms begin to show.