Poor heart health doesn’t just impact your cardiovascular system. It can also impact your brain. Damage to blood vessels is linked with heart disease, as well as stroke and dementia. Now, a new study has shone further light on this, showing that heart attacks often lead to mental decline.
According to research presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 71st Annual Scientific Session, about a third of people who survive heart attacks demonstrate significant mental decline days and even months after the event.
Dr. Dominika Kasprzak, lead author and cardiologist at J. Strus Hospital in Poznań, Poland, says, “We found a very high prevalence of previously undiagnosed cognitive impairment among patients hospitalized due to myocardial infarction. This impairment can be both temporary and permanent, and some patients develop impairment after a delay of several months.”
The study focused on 220 patients who had been hospitalized in Poznań for a heart attack. Their average age was 60, and they did not have a history of dementia or other cognitive disorders before their heart attacks.
A few days after their heart attacks, they underwent two cognitive tests: the Mini-Mental State Examination and the Clock Drawing Test. These evaluate thinking, memory, and ability to perform basic tasks. Six months later, they took the same tests.
Overall, the team says about half of the patients demonstrated normal cognitive functioning during both exam periods. The rest showed signs of some impairment. In the days following the heart attack, 35-40% demonstrated significant impairment, while 27-33% did six months later. Of those who demonstrated some signs of impairment after their heart attacks, about half experienced this temporarily. Additionally, 1 in 9 patients who didn’t initially have any issues did six months later.
Dr. Kasprzak says they did not investigate possible causes of the mental decline, but there were some theories. Those include the possibility that temporary mental decline could have been caused by psychological stress and sleep disturbances around the time of the heart attack. As for permanent cases, they could be due to neurodegeneration or damage to the brain. Those who developed issues months later could have also been suffering the effects of prolonged sleep disturbances, depression, and anxiety.
Because the average age of the patients was so low, the team does not believe age-related declines caused the high percentage. However, permanent mental decline was more common in the older participants and those with signs of severe cardiovascular disease.
The team says their findings should encourage doctors to pay attention to heart health and brain health following a heart attack.
Dr. Kasprzak explains, “Cognitive deficits, such as memory loss or not being able to recognize a loved one, can be even more important for our patients than their cardiovascular disease. We need to monitor our patients regularly to detect changes in their functioning, not only in the heart but also in the brain.”
The team is currently working on a follow-up study with more participants that is investigating possible causes of the mental decline.