Atrial fibrillation (AF) is common in the elderly. The treatment of this condition is based on anticoagulation to prevent stroke and systemic arterial embolism. Vitamin K antagonists (VKAs) have long been the only anticoagulants available for the management of AF. Administration is complex and is one of the main causes of iatrogenic disease in the elderly. In the past 10 years, direct-acting oral anticoagulants (DOACs) have emerged, and large randomised trials (RE-LY, ROCKET-AF, ARISTOTLE, ENGAGE-AF) have demonstrated their superiority over VKAs in the management of AF. These trials were conducted on large numbers of patients (n=71,683), including 27,500 patients aged ≥75 years and nearly 8,000 subjects aged >80 years. Results from 11 recent meta-analyses of randomised trials and observational real-world studies of 660,896 elderly patients indicate that DOACs are more effective than VKA-based prophylaxis in preventing stroke (with a reduction in risk ranging from 13% to 26%), and carry a lower risk of cerebral haemorrhaging (50% reduction in risk). The risk of major haemorrhaging appears to be similar to, or lower than that with DOACs relative to VKAs (depending on the dosage, renal function, haemorrhagic site or type of DOAC). Moreover, improved outcomes with DOACs over VKA therapy have been demonstrated based on subgroup analyses in subjects aged over 75, in patients with renal insufficiency (creatinine clearance: 30-50 mL/min) and in those with a history of falls. Analyses indicate that DOACs are a better choice than VKAs in the elderly because elderly patients are at greatest risk of stroke and cerebral haemorrhaging. In summary, DOACs have a better efficacy/tolerance profile than VKAs, which justifies their first-line use in subjects over 75 years of age.
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