Research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology raised concern over one of the most commonly prescribed heart medications in the world.

Digoxin, which has been used as a remedy for different heart ailments since as early as the 1700s, is made from an extract of the foxglove plant called digitalis. In its modern form, digoxin is used predominantly for heart conditions in elderly patients. In 2012 alone, the last year for which such data is available, the drug was prescribed and dispensed roughly 6.5 million times, according to The New York Times.

While digoxin usage remains common, it has recently come under scrutiny for potentially posing a risk to individuals with atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is a very common type of irregular heartbeat, and digoxin is commonly prescribed for the condition, especially with older individuals.

Atrial fibrillation is estimated to currently affect roughly three million people in the United States. The new research in question suggests that doctors may want to take more care in prescribing digoxin for any individuals already suffering from atrial fibrillation. In fact, the initial conclusions drawn by researchers were that individuals with atrial fibrillation being treated with digoxin were 20 percent more likely to die within several years of beginning treatment than those who pursued other medicines or therapies.

The study

In order to determine this, researchers tracked over 120,000 patients in veterans’ hospitals between 2003 and 2008. Nearly one quarter of the entire sample size had been prescribed digoxin to help them with their atrial fibrillation. Ultimately, those who had been prescribed digoxin for atrial fibrillation showed a 21 percent increased likelihood of dying within several years than their counterparts.

Dr. Mintu Turakhia, who is an assistant professor at Stanford University, helped co-author the study. According to Turakhia, the findings of the study don't necessarily indicate that digoxin should be removed from medical use, but rather that increased caution must be exercised in selecting the drug for treatment.

"I don't want to say that every patient should come off this drug and that every doctor should stop using it," said Turakhia to The New York Times. "But this data should make us take pause and really evaluate whether we should be using this drug as much as we do."

Moving forward

Luckily, digoxin is not the only option for treatment of atrial fibrillation. Beta- and calcium-blocking medicines have both been shown to be effective in treating atrial fibrillation without the same risk as digoxin. Melanie True Hills, who founded an educational nonprofit devoted to spreading awareness of atrial fibrillation, explained that the most important aspect of moving forward with this information is spreading it to those in positions of medical authority.

"I think the key message is that if patients are on digoxin, they need to be asking questions as to why," Hills told The New York Times. "A lot of it is probably because their general practitioner doesn't know the impact this drug has on patients."