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Irregular Heartbeats Tied to Faster Memory Loss in the Elderly

Update Date: Jun 06, 2013 10:15 AM EDT

It is no surprise that with old age comes some degree of memory loss. For a select group of seniors, their brains are still as sharp while for others, memory loss is a fast and scary process. According to a new study, researchers have tied irregular heartbeats in the elderly to the rate of memory loss. The study suggests that older people who have atrial fibrillation are at a higher risk of experiencing mental declines earlier than other seniors.

"Our study shows that, on average, these problems 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," Even Thacker, the lead researcher said reported by HealthDay. Thacker is a statistician in the epidemiology department from the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

The research team reviewed data of over 5,000 people who were aged 65 and older. These people were apart of a cardiovascular health study. During this particular study, the participants did not have atrial fibrillation at the beginning, but after an average of seven years, over 550 people were afflicted with the heart condition. A memory test was administered every year to record memory loss.

After reviewing the data, Thacker's team found that the average decrease in test scores was around six for people with normal heartbeats between the ages of 80 and 85. For the seniors with irregular heartbeats, the average score fell by 10 points. The researchers calculated that for seniors over 75, the average decline for people with the condition was three to four points faster every five years when compared to people with normal heart beats. Based from these numbers, the researchers estimated that people with irregular heartbeats are more likely to have dementia.  

Although this finding could tie heart conditions to brain health, the researchers acknowledged the fact that their results are still correlations, and thus, nothing definitive could be said about these two organs. The researchers did theorize two possible cause and effect situations. First, the researchers stated that people with atrial fibrillation could have small blood clots in their hearts that move up to the brain. Second, people with this heart condition most likely are pumping less blood to the brain, affecting brain function.

Since the study did not find a cause and effect relationship between irregular heart beats and memory decline, the researchers plan on studying the why and how this heart condition leads to poorer memory and cognitive decline. If they or other researchers discover the exact link, preventing premature and rapid memory decline could be a possibility.

The research study was published in Neurology

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