Heart attacks could turbocharge mental decline, dementia onset

DALLAS, Texas — Heart attack survivors are not out of the woods after their ordeal, a new study warns. Researchers working with the American Heart Association say the trauma of a heart attack can turbocharge mental decline, potentially leading to faster onset of dementia.

Results show patients who show early signs of dementia after suffering a heart attack are more likely to deteriorate quickly. More than 800,000 people in the United States suffer a heart attack each year, according to the CDC.

Luckily, better treatment options are available today, which means more people survive heart attacks than in decades past. However, the new study reveals these incidents may lead to rapidly worsening brain damage.

“We need to realize that what’s going on in the heart and brain are related. Managing risk factors to prevent a heart attack is actually good for your brain as well,” says lead author Dr. Michelle Johansen from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in a media release.

Heart attacks led to ‘significantly faster’ declines in memory

The team analyzed data from six long-term studies conducted between 1971 and 2017 during their investigation. These reports involved 31,377 people with an average age of 60 with no history of heart attacks or dementia.

Researchers note a team of neuroscientists and statisticians had to harmonize the data from each of the studies before their analysis could begin. This was because each study tested participants at different time intervals using various cognitive measures. They divided these tests into three categories including memory, executive functioning, and global cognition.

Executive function refers to people’s ability to pay attention, plan, organize, and make complex decisions. Study authors determined global cognition, on the other hand, through the participants’ overall performance on cognitive tests — which combine memory and executive function exercises.

The team then followed participants for between 4.9 and 19.7 years. During that time, 1,047 suffered a heart attack. Those who did, experienced “significantly faster” declines in memory, executive functioning, and global cognition over the next few years.

“We have shown that having a heart attack can be detrimental to your brain health over time,” Johansen says. “Dementia is a slow, step-wise process. One doesn’t wake up out of the blue with dementia.”

What else could cause this decline?

If a heart attack is a factor in the development of dementia, researchers say you wouldn’t anticipate seeing an immediate decline in brain health. However, the team did find significant changes occurring within a few years of the cardiac event.

There are a number of possible explanations for why heart attacks can lead to faster cognitive decline. Silent strokes, which are too small to notice, could cause ongoing damage to the brain by limiting its oxygen supply. Alternatively, risk factors like smoking and high blood pressure which have a link to both heart attacks and dementia could be responsible. People could also face a greater risk of mini blood clots going to the brain if there is damage to the heart’s structure.

“For too long, we have thought about and addressed heart disease and brain disease as two separate conditions,” Dr. Johansen says.

Researchers note their results may not apply to residents in countries outside the U.S. where there may be less access to medical care.

“The impact of a heart attack on cognitive function may turn out to be worse in places that don’t have access to things like blood pressure medications and statins to control disease after a heart attack,” Dr. Johansen tells SWNS in a statement.

“We don’t know, yet it is definitely something to think about, and it emphasizes the importance of preventing and treating heart attacks worldwide, not simply in the United States.”

Researchers are presenting their findings at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2022.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.

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