Harvard Heart Letter

Mental decline from arrhythmia

Researchers have long suspected that the atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disorder, might be linked to declines in memory and thinking skills. Atrial fibrillation is a big cause of stroke, which can harm memory and thinking skills. But can it cause those troubles in someone who hasn't had a stroke?

Researchers at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital tried to answer that question by reviewing 21 studies reporting this association. In 14 studies, people with atrial fibrillation had approximately a 30% increase in the risk of cognitive impairment or vascular dementia. In the seven studies that examined individuals after a stroke, those with atrial fibrillation had twice the risk of developing cognitive impairment or dementia.

Although studies like these do not prove that atrial fibrillation causes cognitive decline or dementia, they do suggest a link. While the association might be explained by the presence of shared risk factors—heart failure, diabetes, and high blood pressure increase the odds of developing both atrial fibrillation and cognitive decline or dementia—the association remained strong when these risk factors were absent.

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