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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

Old Age's Mental Lapses Linked to Heartbeat Irregularities

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April 25, 2000 -- The memory lapses and mental decline that seem to increase with age may be due to heartbeat irregularities that have gone untreated, according to a new study.

"Although it has been suggested since 1977 that [heartbeat irregularities] could be responsible for mental decline, only a few studies have addressed this topic," write lead author Tony Sabatini, MD, and colleagues. The results of this study add support to previous reports that link heart rhythm abnormalities to a decline in mental function, he says. His paper is published in this month's Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Sabatini is with the Geriatric Research Group at the University of Rome, in Italy.

Atrial fibrillation -- the specific form of heart rhythm problem in this study -- is a disorder in which the top part of the heart beats out of control, often several hundred times a minute. Thus, the heart is not able to effectively pump blood to the rest of the body, specifically the brain, potentially leading to a loss of brain cells and mental function.

Another reason that people with atrial fibrillation may have a loss of memory and thinking abilities is that they are more likely to form small clots in the heart that can be pumped into the brain and cause a stroke, the authors write. If the loss of mental function is due to the clots going to the brain, then treatment with blood thinners, such as Coumadin, could help prevent, stop, or slow down the mental decline.

Previous research of brain scans has shown brain abnormalities in elderly people with atrial fibrillation. However, the relationship between these abnormalities and mental function -- thinking and memory abilities -- is not fully understood.

Of 255 patients over age 70 that were studied by the researchers, 42 had atrial fibrillation. All of the participants in the study were tested for mental function and depression. In addition, the researchers evaluated how well the people were able to perform activities of daily living, such as bathing and dressing themselves.

Tests showed that those with atrial fibrillation performed worse on the mental function tests than those with a normal heart rhythm. Furthermore, they also had poorer health, were taking more medications, and had more physical disabilities.

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