Unfortunately, memory loss is quite common as we begin to age. For some it becomes more difficult to learn new names or to acquire new skills, while others struggle to remember events or people from their past. More extreme forms of memory loss can also lead to disorientation and dementia.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham recently conducted a study that indicated that an irregular heartbeat may contribute to earlier memory loss in seniors. This study was comprised of 5,000 individuals age 65 and over, and examined the effects of atrial fibrillation on the human brain, and more specifically on its memory capabilities. During the study, these individuals were given a 100-point memory and thinking test. Researchers found that those who had an irregular heartbeat were likely to have lower scores than those who did not. The study found that there is some correlation between atrial fibrillation and memory loss, however, the exact cause and effect is still unknown.
There are a couple of possible reasons for why people with an irregular heartbeat tend to suffer memory loss earlier. First, atrial fibrillation can sometimes cause small blood clots to form in the heart and travel to the brain. These blood clots are often too small to cause larger health problems, like a stroke. However, over time, even a small clot can cause gradual damage that can lead to a milder mental decline.
The second possible explanation could simply be that people with an irregular heartbeat have less blood flowing to their brain. Without a sufficient blood supply, the brain may not get enough oxygen which can lead to gradual damage as well.
Currently it is not clear why atrial fibrillation causes a higher rate of early memory loss. Doctors and researchers hope that if this question can be definitively answered, perhaps we can learn how to prevent the problem. Today, over 3 million people in the United States suffer from atrial fibrillation. The most common treatment is a blood thinner regimen that reduces the risk of stroke, and according to this study, likely the risk of dementia as well.