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Dementia: Atrial fibrillation could be linked to greater risk of brain decline, says study

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Alarming figures revealed last year that dementia was killing 125 women every day, causing more female deaths than COVID-19. But no drugs are available to slow its development, so preventing the onset of symptoms is critical. As it advances, dementia completely hampers the brain functions of sufferers, eventually robbing them of their independence. A number of factors may trigger this decline, and according to a new body of research, atrial fibrillation may be one.

The recent findings are based on the PhD thesis by Lina Rydén, who has a PhD in neuropsychiatric epidemiology at Sahlgrenska Academy.

Rydén’s research drew on data available from 70-year-olds examined in 2000, who were monitored up until the age of 82.

Some of the data included were also collected from 70-year-olds, who underwent a set of examinations in 2014.

Participants in the latter group were tested using magnetic resonance imaging tests to identify any changes in the structure of their brains.

READ MORE: Scientists develop ‘dementia calculator’ to predict your risk within the next five years

Findings revealed that people with atrial fibrillation have silent brain infarcts deeper inside the white matter, which could potentially be a sign of cerebral vessel disease.

Miss Rydén, from the University of Gothenburg, said: “There may be several reasons why the risk of dementia is elevated in people with atrial fibrillation, even if they don’t get a stroke.

“Dementia may be caused by, for example, altered blood flow to the brain; silent brain infarcts, which are lesions in the brain that are visible on brain imagery but don’t cause any typical stroke symptoms; or AD triggers an inflammation process that raises dementia risk.”

What is Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the term given to a condition characterised by a rapid and irregular heartbeat.

Because the condition seldom produces noticeable symptoms, many people are unaware they’re afflicted.

AF is notoriously linked to a greater risk of stroke, with some health bodies showing it increases the risk of brain attacks fivefold.

Stroke, in turn, has been linked to a doubled risk of dementia in some studies, but the association between AF and dementia has never been studied independently of stroke.

“The fact that atrial fibrillation also causes small infarcts deeper inside the white matter of the brain may mean that AF cause not only stroke and silent infarcts due to blood clots that migrate from the heart and attach themselves to the vessels of the brain, but that other mechanisms results in oxygen deficiency can affect the brain in AF,” noted Miss Rydén.

“But to understand more specifically how AF affects the brain requires more research.”

Current treatment of atrial fibrillation is primarily targeted at reducing symptoms and preventing stroke, but the latest findings prevent a case for treating atrial fibrillation symptoms with the aim of warding off dementia.

Miss Rydén added: “Since there is no curative treatment for dementia today, it’s important to detect and treat risk factors for dementia in the best way to prevent the onset of the disease in the first place.”

Other risk factors for dementia

Dementia occurs when brain cells become increasingly damaged to the point where they’re unable to communicate with each other.

Research has been unable to pinpoint what exactly triggers this deterioration of brain functions, but studies have elucidated some of the risk factors.

Old age is a common risk factor, but family history may also be linked to a higher risk of brain decline.

Other lifestyle factors, such as drinking and smoking, can also contribute to the condition, however.

Historically, the risk of developing dementia has been seen to be increased by conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, so treating these common disease markers is critical.

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