Researchers in Sweden have found that people who have an irregular heart beat are also more likely to develop dementia. The findings are published today (10 October) in the scientific publication, The Journal of Neurology.
Scientists followed nearly 2,700 people in Sweden who did not have dementia at the start of the study to see if they went on to develop the condition over a nine-year period.
A total of 243 study volunteers – 9% of those studied – did have a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation at the beginning of the study. Atrial fibrillation is a condition that causes an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate. A further 279 people developed atrial fibrillation over a period of nine years, and 399 people developed dementia over the same time period.
Scientists measured people’s memory using a common test and found that, each year, the memory of people with atrial fibrillation worsened faster than those who did not have the condition. The researchers also found that atrial fibrillation was associated with the increased likelihood of developing any form of dementia but was not associated with Alzheimer’s disease alone.
The scientists then looked to see whether treating atrial fibrillation had any benefit to people’s memory and thinking skills. They found that people with atrial fibrillation who were being treated with a specific type of blood thinning drug, known as an anticoagulant, had a 60% lower risk of dementia.
Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“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. Repurposing drugs currently used for other health conditions could radically accelerate the time it takes to find a life-changing dementia treatment, but we need to carefully consider the safety risks of any potential treatment.
“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.”