St. Jude Medical Inc. has long made a name for itself through its line of heart rhythm devices, such as defibrillators and pacemakers. But the Little Canada-based company is expected to undergo a dramatic shift this year as such devices are expected to make up less than half of its business.

St. Jude on Wednesday reported fourth-quarter 2012 net sales and earnings that showed that for all of 2012, cardiac rhythm management (CRM) sales accounted for nearly 52 percent of St. Jude's business. But that is expected to change in 2013, when such sales are expected to add up to 49 percent.

"I think that is a change worth noting," St. Jude Executive Vice President John Heinmiller said in an interview Wednesday.

At a time when CRM sales continue to show single-digit declines from the previous year, the growth in St. Jude's other areas -- including neuromodulation and treatment of atrial fibrillation -- is welcome. While St. Jude's overall sales showed a 2.5 percent decline compared with the fourth quarter of 2011 and a 2 percent decline for the full year, other areas are picking up the slack.

In treatment of atrial fibrillation -- in which doctors correct heart rhythm by using radio waves to burn a spot on the heart -- sales for the fourth quarter were $239 million, a 10 percent increase over the fourth quarter of 2011. St. Jude officials said Wednesday that the company's atrial fibrillation business could surpass its pacemaker business as early as 2014. Pacemaker sales for the fourth quarter of 2012 were $260 million, down 11 percent compared to fourth quarter 2011.

Neuromodulation sales were $113 million in the fourth quarter, St. Jude reported, a 7 percent decline from the same quarter a year ago. Neuromodulation sales for the full year -- $423 million -- were up 1 percent compared to 2011.

Daniel Starks, St. Jude Medical chairman, president and chief executive, said: "We are particularly pleased with the strong growth of our atrial fibrillation business, our ability to maintain share in the global [implantable defibrillator] market and exceeding prior earnings-per-share guidance for the quarter. We remain firmly committed to delivering strong EPS growth in 2013 without sacrificing investment in our broad portfolio of pipeline products."

The company said Tuesday that an 11 percent decline in pacemaker sales and weaker demand for implantable defibrillators hurt fourth-quarter sales. Net income fell to $120 million, or 39 cents per share, in the fourth quarter, from $125 million, or 39 cents per share, a year earlier. Fourth-quarter net sales fell about 2.5 percent to $1.37 billion.

Excluding one-time items, the company earned 92 cents, topping average analyst expectations. For the full year 2012, St. Jude reported adjusted earnings per share of $3.48, compared with $3.28 for 2011.

The Little Canada-based company said it expects net earnings for the first quarter of 2013 to be in the range of 91 cents to 93 cents per share and for full-year 2013 net earnings to be in the range of $3.68 to $3.73.

Danielle Antalffy of Leerink Swann Research said in a note to investors Wednesday that the company's 2013 earnings-per-share guidance is above expectations. It was unclear, she said, whether the better-than-expected outlook is due to "a fundamental recovery across [St. Jude's] major businesses or the ongoing share buybacks" St. Jude has instituted.

"We're inclined to believe it's likely a little bit of both," she said.

Full-year sales for 2013 are expected to be in the range of $5.4 billion to $5.6 billion.

St. Jude's share price was down less than half a percent Wednesday, closing at $39.62.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428