MONDAY, Feb. 27, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- A potentially dangerous heart rhythm problem called atrial fibrillation is a strong predictor of mental and physical decline in older people at risk for heart disease, new research suggests.
In the study, published Feb. 27 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, researchers analyzed data from two trials that included over 31,000 people in 40 countries, aged 55 and older. All of the participants had heart disease or diabetes and some organ damage stemming from these diseases.
The investigators used a common screening test known as the mini-mental state examination (MMSE) to assess the participants' mental function at the start ("baseline") and over the course of the study.
Between the start of the study and the follow-up period, more patients with atrial fibrillation (34 percent) than without the heart rhythm disorder (26 percent) had a decrease in MMSE score of three or more points, were admitted to a long-term care facility, experienced a loss of independence in performing activities of daily living or developed dementia, the study authors noted in a journal news release.
"Our study provides prospective evidence that atrial fibrillation increases the risk of [mental] decline and dementia, independent of clinically overt stroke and baseline [mental] function," according to study co-author Koon Teo, of the Population Health Research Institute at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and colleagues.
"We also saw a significant association between atrial fibrillation and functional decline (loss of independence with activities of daily living) and the need for long-term care," the authors wrote in their report.
"Our findings highlight the need to include [mental] and functional measures in clinical trials of patients with atrial fibrillation," the researchers concluded.
While the study uncovered an association between the irregular heartbeat disorder and mental and physical declines, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has more about atrial fibrillation.