Heart attack may cause rapid cognitive decline over years, finds new study

The alarming finds indicate that “The decline in global cognition after a heart attack was equivalent to about six to 13 years of cognitive aging.”
Mrigakshi Dixit
An elderly trying to combine puzzle.
An elderly trying to combine puzzle.


A heart attack may result in a rapid decline of brain cognitive decision abilities in later years, according to a recent study

A group of researchers led by Johns Hopkins Medicine conducted a large-scale study to assess the link between heart and brain health in thousands of individuals.

The alarming results indicate that “the decline in global cognition after a heart attack was equivalent to about six to 13 years of cognitive aging.”

The large-scale study

For this comprehensive study, the researchers analyzed the health data of 30,465 adults collected between 1971 and 2019. Among them, 1,033 people had at least one heart attack, while 137 of them suffered from two.  

A region of the brain responsible for cognition changes was compared between people with a heart attack and those who did not. A point system was devised to track each person's cognition over time. They also assessed factors like memory and cognitive decision-making abilities.

Individuals with a heart attack did not immediately show signs of cognitive decline; it occurred years after their initial attack. Some even showed signs of a faster decline in cognition in the years following the event. On the other hand, those who had never had a heart attack before did not experience much cognitive decline. 

Heart attack impacts thousands each year

A heart attack (myocardial infarction) occurs when the blood supply to the heart is abruptly and severely reduced. As a result of the lack of oxygen, the heart cells start to die at a rapid rate. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 805,000 individuals suffer from heart attacks in the United States each year.  

“Due to the fact that many people are at risk for having a heart attack, we hope that the results of our study will serve as a wake-up call for people to control vascular risk factors like high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol as soon as they can since we have shown that having a heart attack increases your risk of decreased cognition and memory later on in life,” said Michelle Johansen, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in an official release.

However, the researchers are unsure what biological mechanism is causing this decline. Next, the team plans to investigate the link between heart health and normal brain performance in greater depth.

The results are published in the journal JAMA Neurology.

Study abstract:

Importance: The magnitude of cognitive change after incident myocardial infarction (MI) is unclear.

Objective: To assess whether incident MI is associated with changes in cognitive function after adjusting for pre-MI cognitive trajectories.

Design, Setting, and Participants: This cohort study included adults without MI, dementia, or stroke and with complete covariates from the following U.S. population-based cohort studies conducted from 1971 to 2019: 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. Data were analyzed from July 2021 to January 2022.

Main Outcomes and Measures: The main outcome was change in global cognition. Secondary outcomes were changes in memory and executive function. Outcomes were standardized as mean (S.D.) T scores of 50 (10); a 1-point difference represented a 0.1-SD difference in cognition. Linear mixed-effects models estimated changes in cognition at the time of MI (change in the intercept) and the rate of cognitive change over the years after MI (change in the slope), controlling for pre-MI cognitive trajectories and participant factors, with interaction terms for race and sex.

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