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Posted: January 08, 2008

Irregular Heartbeat Can Trigger Memory and Thinking Problems

An irregular heartbeat in men, increasingly common with age, may affect their brains and lead them to perform poorly on cognitive performance tests, according to new research.
The abnormal heart rhythm is a condition known as atrial fibrillation, or arrhythmia. It occurs when the heart’s upper chamber beats rapidly but with little effect, and it has been associated with a higher risk of stroke, heart failure and sometimes death.

The American Heart Association says about 2.2 million Americans suffer from the disorder. The likelihood of developing atrial fibrillation increases with age, and 3% to 5% of the population over age 65 have the condition, the AHA says.

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Now, research has also linked it to cognitive impairment in testing that compared cognitive function in 59 men with atrial fibrillation and 952 with normal heart rhythm, all of whom were free of stroke and dementia.
After adjusting for age, education, stroke risk factors, and cardiovascular disease, men with atrial fibrillation had significantly lower performance on global cognitive ability than control subjects.
The researchers also found that, using standardized tests, the research subjects with atrial fibrillation scored lower a number of specific cognitive tasks, including abstract reasoning, visual memory, visual organization, verbal memory, scanning and tracking, and executive functioning.
In fact, researchers found that the risk poor cognitive performance was raised fourfold in subjects with atrial fibrillation.
Even before this round of testing, there were suggestions within the medical community that associated atrial fibrillation with decreased cognitive performance, including undiagnosed stroke, lesions on the brain, and reduced cardiac output.
Still, researchers concluded that additional studies are needed to better understand the reasons that men with atrial fibrillation have poorer cognitive abilities.

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