Harvard Women's Health Watch

Irregular heartbeat linked to earlier mental decline

People with the most common type of irregular heartbeat, atrial fibrillation (AF), lose mental ability faster than those without the condition, even if they haven't had a stroke, according to a study published online June 5 in the journal Neurology. The study followed more than 5,000 adults, ages 65 and older, for seven years. Participants did not have AF or a history of stroke at the start of the study. (AF increases stroke risk.)

Researchers found that people who developed AF had faster declines in scores on tests of memory and thinking, and they reached the cutoff score for dementia two years earlier (age 85 versus 87) than people without the irregular heart rhythm.

The authors say it is possible that some of the cognitive decline they noted was caused by strokes too small to detect; however, this wasn't the first study to find a connection between AF and cognitive decline. "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," said study author Evan L. Thacker, an epidemiologist from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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