Understanding the connection between heart health and brain function
When you live with atrial fibrillation, you may take medication to prevent blood clots and control uncomfortable symptoms. While this can improve your quality of life in the short term, the long-term outlook may be less rosy. That’s because new research shows that AFib symptoms and common treatments could damage the brain, leading to a decline in memory and language skills.
A network of nerves and blood vessels connect these two organs, but the heart and brain can influence each other through a variety of pathways. Some studies have shown an association between AFib and Alzheimer’s disease, which means there could be processes at play that you might not have considered.
The mental decline known as dementia is a frightening reality, but it’s certainly not set in stone. You can help or hinder your body with your lifestyle and treatment choices, but first you’ll need to understand some of the challenges you could face when you live with AFib.
Stroke risk is a factor
Blood clots leading to stroke are major concerns for anyone living with AFib – they’re also a direct link between heart and brain function. An irregular heartbeat left untreated can cause blood to pool in the heart and clots may form in the pooled blood. If a clot travels to the brain and lodges in a blood vessel, you could experience the classic physical signs of stroke, like blurry vision, slurred speech, and weakness on one side of the body.
Strokes can manifest in different ways. Some strokes come with sudden and pronounced symptoms, while others are silent. These small and quiet strokes can go undetected, affecting cognition in more subtle ways. Over time, that damage can add up, and cognitive changes can become more obvious.
Your risk increases with age
Aging is a challenge for a lot of people at the best of times; the older we get, the tougher certain actions, reactions, and natural processes become. Your AFib risk and your dementia risk rises as you age, especially as you approach 80.
One study published in the journal Neurology found that AFib can bring on Alzheimer’s at an earlier age than in people without AFib. This report didn’t tie cognitive decline to stroke – rather, patients with AFib who had never had a reported stroke still experienced earlier cognitive decline than average.
The effect of AFib treatment on dementia risk
It seems that there’s some link between AFib and dementia (though studies continue to determine just how strong that link is). There also appears to be a connection between certain AFib medications and the risk of mental decline.
Blood thinners could actually protect the brain
The good news about the heart-brain link is that certain blood thinning medication could actually help to stall the onset of dementia. Results of a recent study published in European Heart Journal show that AFib patients on a blood thinning medication at the beginning of the study were 29 per cent less likely to develop dementia than the other participants.
Where does the benefit come from? One theory is that anticoagulants like Warfarin not only protect against major strokes, but also against mild or mini-strokes, the often invisible events that could add up to significant long-term cognitive decline.
However, there’s a fine balance when it comes to blood thinners and brain health: while blood thinning medication is designed to prevent clots, too much of it can cause microbleeds in the brain. The lesson here is that close monitoring could make all the difference. Speak with your doctor regularly about tracking the amount of medication in your body and revisiting your treatment plan periodically to make sure dosage is still sufficient.
Lifestyle changes for mental longevity
Losing weight and improving your general cardiovascular fitness could have a measurable impact on cognitive complications. One 2016 study found that, of the 355 AFib patients who participated in weight loss interventions, those who sustained their weight loss didn’t feel the burden of their AFib to the same degree as others – In fact, they were more likely to remain in a normal sinus rhythm.
Since the effects of AFib can feed cognitive problems, it follows that the fewer AFib symptoms and episodes you have, the better it will be for your mental health. That’s a good reason to incorporate regular exercise into your AFib management plan.
Looking ahead and staying positive
More studies are needed to unveil more details of the AFib-dementia relationship, but recent findings show promise. There’s a bigger push to figure out how to use this relationship to our benefit, and for now, a good amount of evidence to suggest you should consider blood thinners as a main course of defense.
In addition to thinning your blood, focus on other ways to manage heart dangers like high blood pressure. Since early intervention is so often the key to avoiding the worst case scenario, it’s crucial that you communicate well with your doctor. As new studies are scheduled and research advances, your medical team may be able to tailor a treatment plan to protects your brain as well as your heart.