ATLANTA — Women suffering from a prevalent heart rhythm disorder, atrial fibrillation (AFib), have three times the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, new research reveals. Moreover, cognitive decline tends to progress about twice as quickly in these women compared to men diagnosed with the same disorder.
“Symptoms of atrial fibrillation in women are often ignored by healthcare providers or attributed to stress or anxiety so it can go undiagnosed for long period of time, while men are more likely to be diagnosed and treated quickly,” says study author Dr. Kathryn Wood of Emory University.
“Being undiagnosed means not receiving oral anticoagulant medication to prevent blood clots and strokes caused by atrial fibrillation.”
Dr. Wood’s team analyzed data from 43,630 U.S. adults participating in a dementia study over an average period of four years. The participants had at least three annual clinic visits during which they undertook neuropsychological tests. Their cognitive health status was classified into one of three categories: normal cognition, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), or full-blown dementia.
Dr. Wood hypothesizes that these women could be experiencing clots that travel to small blood vessels in their brains. This process might lead to a gradual loss of brain function and consequent cognitive impairment.
“These women may be having clots that go to small blood vessels in their brain, causing them to lose brain function gradually and develop cognitive impairment,” Dr. Wood continues in a media release.
“ESC Guidelines for the care of patients with atrial fibrillation recommend oral anticoagulants for both women and men,” Dr. Wood explains. “However, we know that women are less likely to receive these medications than men. This is another reason why women may have small silent strokes that go unrecognized and damage brain tissue leading to cognitive impairment.”
The research found that women with AFib were three time as likely to develop MCI and dementia, compared to odds ratios in men, which were slightly over half of that. Furthermore, these women faced a 21-percent increased risk of progressing to a more severe stage of cognitive impairment relative to their healthy-hearted peers.
Participants with this condition were also about 2.5 times more likely to progress from MCI to a form of dementia known as vascular dementia. In addition, they had a 17-percent higher chance of moving from normal cognition to MCI. However, the associations between atrial fibrillation and more rapid cognitive decline were not statistically significant in men.
“The analyses indicate stronger associations between atrial fibrillation and declining cognitive function in women compared with men. Establishing ways to identify atrial fibrillation patients at the highest risk of cognitive decline and stroke will inform future interventions to prevent or slow the progression to cognitive impairment and dementia,” Dr. Wood says.
According to the CDC, AFib will affect more than 12 million Americans by the year 2030. It occurs when the heart’s two upper chambers are out of sync, causing an abnormal heart rhythm. This, in turn, affects how well blood flows to the lower chambers of the heart, called the ventricles.
It can also be fixed by a simple procedure called catheter ablation. It uses radiofrequency to burn small areas of tissue causing faulty nerve messages. A fine tube is inserted into a vein in the leg and threaded through vessels into the organ. Unfortunately, up to one patient in 10 can suffer complications including a stroke, perforation of the heart muscle, or dangerously low blood pressure. Not all respond, even after multiple attempts and some are unable to have the operation due to frailty or due to previous operations on the heart.
The findings were presented at ACNAP 2023, a scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology.
You might also be interested in:
- Just half a glass of wine or a bottle of beer a day raises risk of atrial fibrillation
- Agony at the office? Too much work stress linked to atrial fibrillation
- Far more women develop Alzheimer’s disease than men. Scientists may have finally figured out why
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.