Everyone’s brain ages as the years progress, but new research has found that age-related cognitive decline occurs much faster in those who have suffered a heart attack. The study published Tuesday in JAMA Neurology found that the rate of decline in cognition, memory, and executive function was significantly faster over the years for adults who suffer myocardial infarction (MI), also known as a heart attack.
According to CNN, researchers analyzed data from 30,465 people in the U.S. between 1971 and 2019 who had participated in six major studies on heart disease and cognition. None of the study subjects had experienced a heart attack, stroke, or dementia before the research began.
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During the study more than 1,000 participants suffered an acute MI and while no immediate change in cognition was observed by the researchers’ assessments, over the years these individuals had a much steeper rate of decline than their peers. The annual rate of decline was small compared to others who didn’t have a heart attack, but the study authors noted the “accruing subclinical decline over years or decades could eventually impair function or decrease cognitive reserve.”
A Johns Hopkins researcher and collaborators found that the decline in global cognition after a heart attack was equivalent to about six to 13 years of cognitive aging. A news release from Johns Hopkins Medicine stated that every year about 805,000 people in the U.S. have a heart attack. Of these, 605,000 are a first heart attack, and 200,000 occur in individuals who have already suffered a heart attack.
“Due to the fact that many people are at risk for having a heart attack, we hope the results of our study will serve as a wake-up call for people to control vascular risk factors like high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol as soon as they can since we have shown that having a heart attack increases your risk of decreased cognition and memory later in life,” said Dr. Michelle Johansen, an associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Dr. Eric Smith, the medical director of the Cognitive Neurosciences Clinic at the University of Calgary in Alberta, and Dr. Lisa Silbert, a professor of neurology at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine in Portland wrote an accompanying editorial for the published study saying that the reason for the drop in cognition after a heart attack isn’t clear.
“Stroke was excluded as the cause of decline,” they wrote, adding that damage to the heart tissue was also ruled out. Possible causes include depression, chronic inflammation, blood pressure abnormalities, and small blood vessel damage, all of which have been linked to dementia.
“Even though the mechanism for post-MI cognitive decline is unclear, the risk seems real,” the doctors wrote. “Patients with a history of MI should be asked about cognitive symptoms periodically, with follow-up cognitive screening. Referral to a cognitive specialist or neuropsychologist may be warranted in select cases.”
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