By Dr. Maria Simbra

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Many people take a medicine called Digoxin, Dig for short.

The plant-based drug has been used since the 1700s.

It’s usually prescribed for an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation. Digoxin slows the fast-beating heart.

New research, though, points to an increased risk of death with this medicine.

Researchers reviewed the charts of 122,000 patients, mostly men, with newly diagnosed atrial fibrillation from 2003 to 2008 at the VA hospital near Stanford University.

One-quarter of the patients were taking the medicine, and for them, there was a 20 percent higher risk of dying. But this type of study can not prove cause and effect.

“It’s interesting, there was a higher mortality in those patients who took DIG,” said Dr. George Gabriel with AGH Cardiology.

But, that doesn’t mean doctors have stopped prescribing it.

“We do, we do, absolutely,” Gabriel said. “It has a little niche. It’s not first line therapy, but it has a little niche in people with a fib and heart failure in particular.”

Other medicines, such as beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers can be safer alternatives and are typically used to start.

“Who got Dig may have been sicker, may have had more problem and may not have been able to tolerate other medications,” Gabriel said.

“If you’re on it, and your cardiologist prescribed it,” Gabriel said. “I think it’s safe to use as long as it’s being monitored closely.”

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