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Heart attacks may be linked to accelerated cognitive decline over time

Individuals who have one or more heart attacks in their lifetime may experience faster long-term cognitive decline, according to an NIA-funded study. Heart attacks were not associated with cognitive decline immediately following the event. The findings, published in JAMA Neurology, suggest that heart attacks are an important risk factor for cognitive decline, even after someone has recovered from the heart attack itself.

Illustration showing brain and heart in body

A team of researchers led by Johns Hopkins University set out to discover if experiencing a myocardial infarction, or heart attack, is associated with subsequent changes in cognitive function. The researchers analyzed pooled data from six NIH-funded longitudinal cohort studies of cardiovascular health conducted from 1971 to 2019: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study, Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study, Cardiovascular Health Study, Framingham Offspring Study, Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, and Northern Manhattan Study. When participants entered these studies, they were on average age 64 and had no history of heart attack, stroke, or dementia. In addition to sharing their health records, they took cognitive tests measuring their memory, reasoning, and decision-making skills over time.

For this new study, the researchers analyzed data from 30,465 of the cohort study participants. They first identified 1,033 participants who experienced a heart attack in their lifetime, and then examined their cognitive test scores in the years before and after the event. Participants who had a heart attack generally did not have any change in cognitive function at the time of the event. However, in the years that followed, they had faster rates of cognitive decline than those who had never had a heart attack.

These results add to a growing amount of evidence pointing toward a link between heart and brain health. Additionally, the findings could inform how health care providers monitor and discuss risk for cognitive decline in their patients after a heart attack. Future studies may also explore how gender and race interact with the relationship between heart attack and cognitive decline.

This research was supported in part by NIA grants R01AG051827 and K01AG050699.

These activities relate to NIH’s Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias Research Implementation Milestones:

  • 1.F, “Population Studies: Inclusion of non-AD cohorts.”
  • 9.M, “Multiple Etiology Dementias: Establish pre-symptomatic diagnostics and biomarkers.”

Reference: Johansen MC, et al. Association between acute myocardial infarction and cognition. JAMA Neurology. 2023;80(7):723-731. doi: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2023.1331.

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