Old Age's Mental Lapses Linked to Heartbeat Irregularities

From the WebMD Archives

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.

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.

Vital Information:

  • 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 the brain.
  • 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.