Having a heart attack is bad news for your brain, raising your odds for mental decline in the years to come, new research finds.
Looking at studies conducted over five decades, researchers found that a heart attack wasn’t linked to immediate cognitive (“thinking”) issues, but they saw a faster-than-normal decline of brain health in the years that followed.
This decline in global cognition after a heart attack was equivalent to about six to 13 years of mental aging, the study authors said.
“Due to the fact that many people are at risk for having a heart attack, we hope that 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 on in life,” said Dr. Michelle Johansen. She is an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore.
With a heart attack, blood supply to the heart is suddenly and severely reduced or cut off. This can cause the muscle to die from a lack of oxygen.
About 805,000 people in the United States have a heart attack every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among them, 605,000 are a first heart attack and 200,000 are a repeat heart attack.
To study heart attack’s impact on cognition — the ability to think and reason — the researchers did a pooled analysis of six large studies of adults conducted between 1971 and 2019. They used a point system to measure participants’ global or overall cognition over time, their memory, and how well they made complex cognitive decisions, known as executive functioning.
Those cognitive tests showed a decline over the years following a heart attack.
The study sample comprised more than 30,000 people who had not had a heart attack or stroke, and did not have dementia at the time of the first assessment. Among them, 1,033 later had a heart attack and 137 of those had a second heart attack.
Those who experienced heart attacks were more likely to be older and male.
“We have shown that preventing heart attacks may be one strategy to preserve brain health in older adults,” Johansen said in a news release from Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Now we need to determine what specifically is causing the cognitive decline over time.”
The study was published online May 30 in JAMA Neurology. This research was supported in part by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
The American Heart Association has more on heart attack.
SOURCE: Johns Hopkins Medicine, news release, May 31, 2023