Offbeat Heartbeat and an Aging Mind

Atrial fibrillation in elderly associated with disorders of memory and thinking

(RxWiki News) Old age can bring with it a host of mental and physical issues, including heart conditions and cognitive problems such as dementia and memory troubles.

Results of a new study suggest there is a link between atrial fibrillation, a chaotic beating of the heart, and memory disorders in older people.

According to the study, people who develop atrial fibrillation may be more likely to develop issues related to memory and thinking as well.

"Talk to a cardiologist if you experience abnormal heartbeats."

The study was conducted by Evan L. Thacker, PhD, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and colleagues to examine the link between atrial fibrillation and memory problems in old age.

The researchers looked at 5,150 subjects age 65 and older from four different communities in the United States for a period of seven years. None of the participants had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation or stroke at the beginning of the study.

Of the participants, 552 (11 percent) developed atrial fibrillation during the seven-year period.

The participants were administered a 100-point memory and thinking test each year. Any patient who had a stroke was not included in this testing after the stroke event.

Any participant who scored below 78 points on the 100-point test was classified as having dementia.

The researchers found that on average, participants who had atrial fibrillation were more likely to have quicker progression of memory and thinking problems as compared to the patients who did not have atrial fibrillation.  

For instance, from age 80 to age 85, the scores of both the participants with and without atrial fibrillation went down. But the scores were lowered by an average of 10 points for the group who had atrial fibrillation and by 6 points for the group who did not.

According to Dr. Thacker, "Problems with memory and thinking are common for people as they get older. Our study shows that on average, problems with memory and thinking may start earlier or get worse more quickly in people who have atrial fibrillation. This means that heart health is an important factor related to brain health."

It must be noted that a link between atrial fibrillation and dementia does not mean that one causes the other. Further studies are needed to explore this association further and determine the exact relationship.

"If there is indeed a link between atrial fibrillation and memory and thinking decline, the next steps are to learn why that decline happens and how we can prevent that decline," Dr. Thacker said.

The study was published June 5 in Neurology, the official journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The research was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute on Aging.

Review Date: 
June 5, 2013