BACKGROUND: Atrial fibrillation (AF) represents an increasing public health challenge with profound social and economic implications. METHODS: A comprehensive synthesis and review of the AF literature was performed. Overall, key findings from 182 studies were used to describe the indicative scope and impact of AF from an individual to population perspective. RESULTS: There are many pathways to AF including advancing age, cardiovascular disease and increased levels of obesity/metabolic disorders. The reported population prevalence of AF ranges from 2.3%-3.4% and historical trends reflect increased AF incidence. Estimated life-time risk of AF is around 1 in 4. Primary care contacts reflect whole population trends: AF-related case-presentations increase from less than 0.5% in those aged 40 years or less to 6-12% for those aged 85 years or more. Globally, AF-related hospitalisations (primary or secondary diagnosis) showed an upward trend (from ~35 to over 100 admissions/10,000 persons) during 1996 to 2006. The estimated cost of AF is greater than 1% of health care expenditure and rising with hospitalisations the largest contributor. For affected individuals, quality of life indices are poor and AF confers an independent 1.5 to 2.0-fold probability of death in the longer-term. AF is also closely linked to ischaemic stroke (3- to 5-fold risk), chronic heart failure (up to 50% develop AF) and acute coronary syndromes (up to 25% develop AF) with consistently worse outcomes reported with concurrent AF. Future projections predict at least a doubling of AF cases by 2050. SUMMARY: AF represents an evolving, global epidemic providing considerable challenges to minimise its impact from an individual to whole society perspective.