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How Atrial Fibrillation Affects Your Mind

By

Mary Elizabeth Dallas

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This content is created or selected by the Healthgrades editorial team and is funded by an advertising sponsor. The content is subject to the Healthgrades medical review process for accuracy, balance and objectivity. The content is not edited or otherwise influenced by the advertisers appearing on this page except with the possible suggestion of the broad topic area. For more information, read the HealthGrades advertising policy.

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Stethoscope on the ECG

Atrial fibrillation certainly affects your heart. But, it may affect your mind as well. Research has linked the condition—sometimes called afib—with mental decline and dementia.

Your risk of developing afib increases with age, as do your chances of developing memory and thinking problems. But, people with afib may be more likely to experience mental decline faster. They could have trouble with certain mental tasks earlier in life than those who don’t have this type of irregularity with the speed or rhythm of their heartbeat.

No one knows for certain why afib has this effect on the mind. Here are three possible explanations:

1. Stroke—the Leading Cause of Mental Decline

Afib prevents the heart from contracting properly, which leads to lower blood flow from the heart. Blood could also pool in the heart. This can cause a clot to form. Clots that form in the heart might travel to the brain. They can block the brain’s blood supply and trigger a stroke. Very small clots may not cause symptoms right away. However, over time they can lead to brain damage. Even mild strokes can cause long-term damage.

People with afib are five times more likely to have a stroke than people who don't have the heart condition. Afib causes about 15% of all strokes.

Common thinking problems after a stroke include:

  • Confusion
  • Trouble carrying on a conversation
  • Memory loss
  • Problems with planning and problem-solving
  • Reduced attention span
Having more than one stroke increases the likelihood that someone will experience mental decline.

2. Inflammation

Inflammation is the body's way of fighting off threats to your health. A simple example is the redness and swelling you see around a paper cut on your finger. But, inflammation can also lead to internal changes you can't see. It can affect organs like your heart and your brain. In some people, it may set the stage for afib.

Also, some people with afib have some of the same indicators of inflammation that people with mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease have. This has made some researchers wonder if there's a connection between having afib and the mental decline linked to inflammation. They're investigating whether early treatment of inflammation in the body can stop the development of afib, dementia or both.

3. Shrinking Brains

Researchers have found that people with afib have smaller brains than people who don't have afib. The medical term for this is less brain volume. That's especially true for those with severe afib. This suggests afib may have a negative effect on the brain over time—even in people who never had a stroke. It will take more research to figure out whether maintaining a normal heart rhythm could keep the brain from shrinking and protect against dementia.

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Medical Reviewers: Farrokh Sohrabi, MD Last Review Date: Apr 29, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Atrial fibrillation and cognitive decline. Neurology. 2013. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3770176/
  2. Atrial Fibrillation is Associated With Reduced Brain Volume and Cognitive Function Independent of Cerebral Infarcts. Stroke. 2013. https://stroke.ahajournals.org/content/44/4/1020.abstract
  3. Atrial fibrillation: Common, serious, treatable. Harvard Medical School. http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/atrial-fibrillation-common-serious-treatable
  4. When the Beat Is Off -- Atrial Fibrillation. American Heart Association. http://www.strokeassociation.org/STROKEORG/LifeAfterStroke/HealthyLivingAfterStroke/UnderstandingRis...
  5. Vascular Dementia. National Stroke Association. http://www.stroke.org/we-can-help/survivors/stroke-recovery/post-stroke-conditions/cognition/vascula...
  6. Cognitive Function: Is There More to Anticoagulation in Atrial Fibrillation Than Stroke? J Am Heart Assoc. 2015. http://jaha.ahajournals.org/content/4/8/e001573.full
  7. Atrial Fibrillation. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/atrial-fibrillation/home/ovc-20164923
  8. Atrial fibrillation is independently associated with senile, vascular, and Alzheimer’s dementia. Heart Rhythm. Apr 2010. http://www.heartrhythmjournal.com/article/S1547-5271(09)01375-7/pdf

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