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Research links irregular heartbeat with dementia

It seems the more we learn about the human body, the more we discover links in unexpected places. In the latest example, a new study has found a strong link between dementia and an irregular heartbeat.

Australian cardiologist Professor Ben Freedman said his organisation, the Heart Research Institute, has uncovered strong evidence of a connection between atrial fibrillation and deteriorating cognitive function leading to dementia.

The results have been published in the medical journal, Circulation, after a worldwide collaboration that involved 37 countries, including Canada, Greece, South Korea and Sweden.

Read: Podcast: How to reduce the risk of dementia through diet

In examining the results, the research found a significant connection between  atrial fibrillation and cognitive function leading to dementia. An irregular heartbeat, which can be an indicator of atrial fibrillation, causes the blood to circulate in the heart in an abnormal way, which in turn, can lead to the development of clots, which may be a factor in developing dementia.

“People with atrial fibrillation are at increased risk of dementia and the link is independent of stroke and other risk factors,” said Prof. Freedman.

While the link is strong, it hasn’t yet been proven to be a causal one, he said. However, it is something that should be looked into more deeply.

Read: New study links tooth loss to increased risk of dementia

Speaking on the ABC’s Radio National Breakfast program, Prof. Freedman said: “We’ve been worried about this for some time.

“A number of researchers have shown there is an association, but our team really took this to the next level, to go through and do a full review of where the evidence is now, [and] where the gaps are.”

He said the results were a clear indication of the need to invest more energy into how an abnormal heart rhythm can lead to dementia.

One in three people aged over 50 will develop atrial fibrillation and the condition is more common in men than women.

Prof. Freedman recommends regular pulse checks for older Australians, adding that only 11 per cent of the population over 65 are regularly screened for atrial fibrillation. Most people can do this for themselves, he said.

“You can actually check your own pulse pretty easily.”

He encourages people to go to websites such as the Atrial Fibrillation Association. “They are a patient group and they have lots of things on their website such as, ‘Know your own pulse’. Their motto is ‘Detect and protect’”.

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If you detect an irregular pulse, consult your GP and he/she will likely refer you for an ECG.

Prof. Freedman is leading the AF Screen International project, which has experts worldwide looking into the possible causes of the link between irregular heartbeat and dementia.

“It’s not just people who are cardiologists, there are neurologists, stroke specialists, general physicians and pharmacists. It’s a group of people who think it’s a worthwhile thing to be doing research on, and how it is cost-effective.”

With the incidence of both dementia and atrial fibrillation expected to increase with the ageing of the world’s population, Prof. Freedman says: “If dementia could be prevented by what we are doing, that would be a great outcome. We might be able to intervene and reverse the cognitive decline before dementia, which would be a game changer.”

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Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigaczhttps://www.patreon.com/AndrewGigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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