Study Finds that Heart Attacks Speed Up Cognitive Decline

Study Finds that Heart Attacks Speed Up Cognitive Decline

According to a recent study, getting a heart attack may increase your chance of experiencing cognitive impairment that is faster than normal for aging adults.

As the years go by, everyone’s brain gets older, but some more so than others.

Normal changes are usually relatively subtle: processing speed slows down, attention span shortens, and difficulty finding the proper words is sometimes a regular occurrence.

However, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related illnesses should not be mistaken for age-related cognitive loss, according to specialists.

Researchers evaluated data from 6 significant studies on cardiovascular disease and cognition done in the United States between 1971 and 2019 for the new study, which was released in the JAMA Neurology Journal.

All of the 30,465 participants in these trials completed one or more cognitive exams and none of them had dementia, heart disease, or a stroke prior to the study’s onset.

But more than a thousand of the study participants experienced a heart attack, also known as an acute myocardial infarction.

The cognitive scores of individuals who had a heart attack sped up over the following 6 or so years at a far quicker pace than those of their contemporaries who had not had a heart attack, even though there was no immediate change in cognition.

Dr. Eric Smith and Dr. Lisa Silbert stated in an accompanying editorial that there was a negligible increase in the yearly rate of deterioration for those who experienced heart attacks.

Regardless, Smith and Silbert stressed that “it is possible that accruing subclinical decline over years or decades could eventually impair function or decrease cognitive reserve, making the person more vulnerable to the effects of age-related neurodegenerative pathologies.”

The study discovered that White people experienced a steeper yearly rate of decline following a heart attack than Black people and men more so than women.

This steeper annual rate of decline couldn’t be explained by a stroke or a new case of atrial fibrillation, an abnormal, frequently fast heart rhythm that can result in blood clots in the heart.

According to Smith and Silbert, this isn’t the first study to identify a link between rapid cognitive decline and heart attacks.

Another study also found that having strong leg muscles may improve outcomes in the wake of a heart attack.

“An acceleration in the annual rate of cognitive decline after MI (myocardial infarction) was also seen in 7888 participants in the English Longitudinal Study on Aging, of whom 254 had an MI and 286 had angina during up to 12 years of follow-up,” they also wrote.

According to the two experts, those who had heart attacks or angina (chest discomfort) had yearly rates of cognitive loss comparable to those of people who’d never experienced a heart attack before the event, but subsequently they went on to have faster cognitive decline.

Smith and Silbert remarked that it is still unclear exactly how a decline in cognition may be caused.

They also mentioned that “Stroke was excluded as the cause of the decline,” adding that heart tissue injury following an attack seemed rather unlikely.

“The lack of an immediate decrease in cognition and the steeper decline in subsequent years suggests that the heart attack was associated with a slower, progressive process that accelerated cognitive decline.”

According to them, one possibility might be post-heart attack depression, which has been related to dementia.

They suggested that tiny blood vessel dysfunction, chronic inflammation, and blood pressure irregularities—all of which have been associated with dementia—could be additional contributing factors.

Finally, Smith and Silbert wrote that “Even though the mechanism for post-MI cognitive decline is unclear, the risk seems real. Patients with history of MI should be asked about cognitive symptoms periodically, with follow-up cognitive screening … referral to a cognitive specialist or neuropsychologist may be warranted in select cases.”


Katherine is just getting her start as a journalist. She attended a technical school while still in high school where she learned a variety of skills, from photography to nutrition. Her enthusiasm for both natural and human sciences is real so she particularly enjoys covering topics on medicine and the environment.

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