Can Heart Attack Turbocharge Mental Decline? Research Says, Maybe.

Those who experience heart attacks see a faster deterioration in cognitive function than those who do not, raising the possibility that heart attack prevention could assist in maintaining brain health.

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Can Heart Attack Turbocharge Mental Decline? Research Says, Maybe.
4 Min Read January 26th, 2023

A recent study cautions that heart attack survivors are not entirely out of the woods after their ordeal. The trauma of a heart attack, according to researchers from the American Heart Association, might accelerate mental decline and possibly hasten the onset of dementia.

The CDC estimates that more than 800,000 Americans yearly suffer from heart attacks. A heart attack happens when the blood supply to the heart is significantly impeded or blocked. The accumulation of fat, cholesterol, and other chemicals in the heart's (coronary) arteries typically causes obstruction.

Millions of people saw Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin suffer cardiac arrest during a Monday Night NFL game. Some people have multiple heart attacks during their lifetime. Former Vice President Dick Cheney sustained five heart attacks since age 37.

Heart and Brain Connected

Advances in medical science help prevent heart disease, and when a heart attack happens, advanced medical care allows more people to survive and return to regular activity. However, the research reveals that these incidents may rapidly worsen brain damage.

According to Dr. Michelle Johansen from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the heart and the brain are connected.

Dr. Michelle Johansen

We need to realize that what's going on in the heart and brain are related. Managing risk factors to prevent a heart attack is actually good for your brain as well.

The research team followed participants for between 4.9 and 19.7 years. During that time, 1,047 suffered a heart attack. Those with a heart event experienced "significantly faster" declines in their memory, executive functioning, and global cognition over the next few years.

We have shown that having a heart attack can be detrimental to your brain health over time. Dementia is a slow, step-wise process. One doesn't wake up out of the blue with dementia.

According to researchers, you wouldn't expect to notice a reduction in brain health right away if a heart attack is a contributing factor in the onset of dementia. Nevertheless, the team discovered significant changes occurring a few years after the cardiac incident.

Planning Post Heart Attack

However, planning for long-term health care would make sense for someone who has suffered and since recovered from a heart attack. The fact an individual had a cardiac issue in the past would not automatically prevent them from obtaining Long-Term Care Insurance; however, once someone has dementia, they would be unable to get coverage.

Most people start planning for long-term health care in their 50s as part of their retirement planning. However, someone must have reasonably good health, including full recovery, if they had a heart problem in the past.

Heart attacks may cause cognitive impairment to occur more quickly for various reasons. Silent strokes, including transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), which are too minor to be noticed, may limit the brain's oxygen flow and result in long-term damage. Alternately, risk factors for dementia and heart attacks, such as smoking and high blood pressure, may be to blame. If there is structural damage to the heart, people may also be at an increased risk of developing tiny blood clots that go to the brain.  

Don’t Ignore Regular Check-Ups Even if You Have Good Health

Even people who exercise and enjoy a healthy lifestyle are sometimes at risk for heart-related issues. Regular check-ups with a primary physician, including lab work like a comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP), is essential for anyone over age 40. A CMP is a test that measures 14 different substances in the blood. It provides doctors with vital information about your health.

Dr. Johansen says that for too long, we have thought about and addressed heart disease and brain disease as two separate conditions. Health is better managed in the United States and most developed countries, and the risks can be minimized easier.

The impact of a heart attack on cognitive function may turn out to be worse in places that don't have access to things like blood pressure medications and statins to control disease after a heart attack.

However, failure to use the available medical resources can be devastating and even fatal. Doctors are seeing health issues, including obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and higher cholesterol levels in people in their 20s and 30s. For those over 40, regular annual check-ups will help maintain good health. For anyone over age 50, regular check-ups should not be ignored. 

You might think you feel fine, yet high blood pressure and high cholesterol often will have no symptoms until something significant happens. Being proactive with your health and planning for aging should be something you put into practice right away.

Regular tests, including blood pressure testing, are vital to prevent health issues, including heart problems. Start to have a relationship with your doctor -- they will get to know you, and you will get to know them. Always disclose the symptoms you might be experiencing, even if you think they are unimportant.

Also, always ask questions. Use the time during your annual medical check-ups wisely. Disclose substances you may be using (including drugs and alcohol) as they can affect your health and care.

An essential step in maintaining good health starts by reviewing all the medications someone takes during routine medical appointments. This includes all drugs, including prescription and nonprescription drugs, nutritional supplements, and herbal remedies should be disclosed to your doctor. The doctor can then assess that the medications are successfully controlling chronic conditions and spot any potential drug interactions that might be resulting in health issues.

Aging results in changes in your health, body, and mind. Being proactive will benefit you in the decades ahead.

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About the Author

Linda is a former journalist who now enjoys writing about topics she is interested in so she “can keep her mind active and engaged”.

LTC News Contributor Linda Maxwell

Linda Maxwell

Contributor since December 11th, 2017

Editor's Note

Given the chance of needing long-term health care is high and the risk increases as you get older, having a plan to address the costs and burdens of aging is a vital part of retirement planning.

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Planning Requires Resources

LTC NEWS has many tools and resources. These resources can help you in your research as you prepare for your future retirement and plan for the costs and burdens of aging and declining health.

Do Parents Need Assistance Right Now?

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Asking an expert with your questions will help you learn more. Mike Banner, a columnist for LTC NEWS and the host of the television program "62 Who Knew," will respond to your inquiries about long-term care, reverse mortgages, aging, and health.

- Just "Ask Mike." - Reverse Mortgages | LTC News.

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