By Jaimie Dalessio
People with cardiac disease, particularly women, may face a higher risk of mild cognitive impairment than those without heart problems, a new study suggests. Specifically, they may be more likely to develop what's called nonamnestic mild cognitive impairment -- nonamnestic because it doesn't include memory loss but involves problems with language, thinking, and judgment.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., assessed 2,719 people ages 70 to 89 at the beginning of their study and followed up every 15 months. They focused on those who did not have mild cognitive impairment at the study's start -- 1,450 people. Of that group, 669 had heart disease and 781 did not. Subsequent development of nonamnestic mild cognitive impairment was more prevalent among those in the heart disease group, they found -- occurring in 8.8 percent, compared to 4.4 percent in the group without heart disease.
More women than men experienced cardiac disease and mild cognitive impairment together, according to the findings, published online today in JAMA Neurology.
Mild cognitive impairment describes mental problems more serious than normal age-related memory loss but not yet dementia. Additionally, nonamnestic mild cognitive impairment is generally considered a precursor to vascular dementia (which occurs as a result of small strokes) and other non-Alzheimer's dementias, the study authors wrote in the report.
The association between heart disease and cognitive impairment might exist for a few reasons, explains study author Rosebud Roberts, MB, ChB, a health sciences researcher at Mayo Clinic.
"The heart pumps blood to the brain, if the pump is failing for whatever reason, then you might not have enough blood supply for the brain and that can damage the nerves," she says.
Dr. Roberts and colleagues looked for a few different types of heart disease in the participants, including atrial fibrillation, coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis, for example), and heart failure.
In atrial fibrillation, says Roberts, "[Their bodies] could shoot off emboli, little blood clots, into the brain, blocking little vessels. They might not be evident as a stroke but could be causing blockage to small vessels in the brain. Areas may not be receiving blood that they need, and the neurons would die."
Lastly, Roberts points out that once people have severe heart disease, they may also have vascular disease in other parts of the body, like the brain.
In other words, it could either be that the heart disease is causing the brain disease or the two could go together.
So what's the takeaway? Roberts wouldn't go so far as to say everyone with heart disease should get screened for cognitive function. "I just think they need to make sure they are preventing progression of their heart disease," she says, which means controlling high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and weight.
For people who do not yet have heart disease, Roberts emphasizes prevention. It's astonishing, she points out, how many different diseases have the same risk factors. "Reducing risk of obesity and hypertension, increasing exercise ... those are all tied in. Those are the key things we see over and over again," she says.
"Heart Disease Linked to Thinking Problems in Women" originally appeared on Everyday Health.