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    Irregular Heartbeat May Speed Memory Loss in Seniors

    Study found that people with atrial fibrillation showed mental declines at earlier age than those without heart condition

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    In addition to the marked increase in the risk of stroke, more recent research suggests that atrial fibrillation is associated with an increased risk of mental decline and dementia, he said.

    "Repetitive, small subclinical strokes in patients with atrial fibrillation may account for these findings," Fonarow said.

    He said giving blood thinners to patients with atrial fibrillation is standard care to prevent clots in the heart from migrating to the brain.

    Putting these patients on anticoagulants, such as warfarin or one of the newer therapies, will "likely be effective in not only reducing the risk of stroke, but also reducing the significant risk of mental decline and dementia," he said.

    To see the effect atrial fibrillation had on memory and thinking, Thacker's team collected data on more than 5,000 people aged 65 and older who took part in the Cardiovascular Health Study.

    At the start of the study, none of the participants had atrial fibrillation. Over an average of seven years of follow-up, more than 550 people developed the condition, the researchers noted.

    Each year during the study, all the participants were given a 100-point memory and thinking test.

    The researchers found that people with atrial fibrillation were more likely to have lower scores on the test at an earlier age, compared with those who didn't develop atrial fibrillation.

    For example, the average score on the test decreased by about six points for people without atrial fibrillation between ages 80 and 85, compared to about 10 points for those with atrial fibrillation.

    For those aged 75 and older with atrial fibrillation, the average decline was about three to four points faster every five years, compared to people without atrial fibrillation.

    Scores below 78 points are associated with dementia, Thacker said.

    The researchers predicted that on average, those without atrial fibrillation would score below 78 when they were 87, while people with atrial fibrillation would score below 78 when they were 85.

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