Brain May Skip a Few Beats With Arrhythmia

Atrial fibrillation can lead to problems with memory and thinking

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The older you get, the greater your risk is for atrial fibrillation. With these irregular heartbeats, the body and brain may not get enough blood, and this may affect your ability to think.

About 70 percent of atrial fibrillation patients are between 65 and 85 years old, according to the Heart Rhythm Society. New research has found that those who get the disease may not only face serious health problems such as heart failure and stroke, they may also have increasing difficulties with memory and thinking.

"Keep up heart health to maintain brain health as well."

Evan Thacker, PhD, at the University of Alabama School of Public Health at Birmingham, and fellow scientists reviewed data on 5,150 participants enrolled in the Cardiovascular Health Study.

The participants, who were 65 and older from four communities in the United States, had no history of atrial fibrillation or stroke at the start of the study. Every year, they completed a 100-point memory and thinking test.

After following patients for an average of seven years, 552, or about 11 percent, developed atrial fibrillation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the median age for men with atrial fibrillation is 66.8 years, and for women, it’s 74.6 years.

With atrial fibrillation, the electrical signals that coordinate the muscle of the upper chambers (atria) of the heart become rapid and disorganized; resulting in an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), often greater than 300 beats per minute, according to the Heart Rhythm Society.

Researchers observed that people with atrial fibrillation were more likely to experience lower memory and thinking scores at earlier ages than people with no history of atrial fibrillation.

For example, from age 80 to 85, the average score on the 100-point test went down by about 6 points for people without atrial fibrillation, but it went down by about 10 points for those with atrial fibrillation.

For participants ages 75 and older, the average rate of decline was about three to four points faster per five years of aging with atrial fibrillation compared to those without the condition.

“This suggests that on average, people with atrial fibrillation may be more likely to develop cognitive impairment or dementia at earlier ages than people with no history of atrial fibrillation,” said Dr. Thacker.

Dr. Thacker noted that scores below 78 points on the 100-point test are suggestive of dementia. People without atrial fibrillation in the study were predicted on average to score below 78 points at age 87, while people with atrial fibrillation were predicted to score below 78 points at age 85, two years earlier.

“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 Dr. Thacker.

The study was published online on June 5 in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The study was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute on Aging.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 4, 2013
Last Updated:
August 7, 2013