Old Age's Mental Lapses Linked to Heartbeat Irregularities
WebMD News Archive
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
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
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
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
Atrial fibrillation should be regarded as one of the most important causes
of mental decline, says Sabatini.
Calling the findings provocative yet preliminary, Mitchell Faddis, MD, PhD,
tells WebMD that the findings warrant further investigation. This study
provides evidence that there is, in fact, a link between atrial fibrillation
and a loss in mental function, he adds. Faddis is assistant professor of
medicine and a cardiac electrophysiologist at Washington University School of
Medicine in St. Louis.
- A new study suggests that heartbeat irregularities could be responsible for
age-related memory lapses and mental decline. The idea was first proposed more
than 20 years ago but is seldom studied.
- The recent study looked at patients with atrial fibrillation, a heart
rhythm problem where the top of the heart beats uncontrollably. This can
prevent the heart from pumping blood to the body properly. It also can cause
blood clots that can cause a stroke if they travel through the bloodstream to
- Doctors still aren't sure about the relationship between heart rhythm and
mental health. The recent study showed that patients with atrial fibrillation
did worse on mental function tests than healthy patients did.