Dementia: Study finds irregular heartbeat may lead to increased risk of disease developing
Dementia is associated with an ongoing decline of brain functioning, affecting things such as memory loss, thinking speed, mental sharpness and quickness, and understanding.
The causes of dementia have been found to depend on the type of dementia, according to Alzheimer’s Society.
For example, with Alzheimer’s disease, an abnormal protein surrounds brain cells and another protein damages their internal structure.
In time, chemical connections between brain cells are lost and cells begin to die.
Now, new research from the American Academy of Neurology, published in the journal Neurology, has suggested that people living with irregular heartbeat, known as atrial fibrillation, are at greater risk of developing vascular dementia or mixed dementia including vascular dementia.
The research involved 2,685 participants and was undertaken in Sweden.
It suggested those with atrial fibrillation who took blood thinning drugs were much less likely to develop vascular and mixed dementia (but not Alzheimer’s than those who weren’t.
Dr James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “It is well established that what is good for your heart is good for your head and this research adds even more weight to the relationship between heart health, stroke and vascular dementia risk, which are all affected by blood pressure and your circulatory system.
“Within this large, well-executed study people with atrial fibrillation (AF) were overall at a greater risk of developing vascular dementia than people without AF.
“Those who took blood-thinning drugs, such as Warfarin, reduced their risk of getting vascular dementia by 60 per cent compared to those who didn’t.
“This highlights the need to explore every avenue to help us unearth more vital information on what is now the UK’s biggest killer, which is why we’re funding over £2.5 million of research specifically into the relationship between the heart and dementia.”
Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, added: “We know that the health of our hearts and brains are extremely closely linked, and this study highlights an association between an irregular heart rhythm and a greater risk of memory problems.
“Whilst this was not a particularly large study, it highlights a stronger link to vascular dementia risk than to Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of the condition.
“In the study, treating an irregular heart rhythm with a blood thinning drug was associated with a lower risk of dementia, but further research is needed to understand how anticoagulants could impact memory decline.”
Dr Sancho added that repurposing drugs currently used for other health conditions could radically accelerate the time it takes to find a life-changing dementia treatment, but that we need to carefully consider the safety risks of any potential treatment.
She said: “It’s becoming clear that we need to think about dementia as part of our wider brain health, in the same way we do for heart health. If you have concerns about any aspect of your health, you should speak to your GP.”
An irregular heartbeat or atrial fibrillation is often only discovered during routine tests or investigations for another condition.
But the most obvious symptoms to look out for, according to the NHS, is heart palpitations where the heart feels like it’s pounding, fluttering or beating irregularly, often for a few seconds or possibly a few minutes.
The health body advises: “As well as an irregular heartbeat, your heart may also beat very fast (often considerably higher than 100 beats per minute).
“You can work out your heart rate by checking the pulse in your neck or wrist.”