Heart Attacks May Be Foreshadowed By Poor Cognitive Skills

A study published this week by the American Association of Neurology has linked low scores on cognitive thinking tests to future heart attacks, showing that the brain and heart may be even more closely linked than we believed.

The study, authored by researchers at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, assessed 3,926 patients with an average age of 75 for their risk of both heart attack and stroke. The test was not a medical one of the sort one might usually expect for a potential heart attack sufferer, but rather pinpointed their executive function — that is, higher-level thinking skills required to reason through and solve problems. The patients were then ranked in “low,” “medium,” and “high” categories with respect to their executive function, and then studied for three years to trace frequency of both heart attacks and strokes.

At the end of the three-year study, it was discovered that those in the “low” executive function group were 85 percent more likely to have a heart attack than those in the “high” group, as well as 51 percent more likely to have a stroke. Specifically, 176 of the 1,309 members of the “low” category had heart attacks, with only 93 of the 1,308 in the “high” category suffering the same.

Of the results, study author Benham Sabayan, MD, PhD, said, “These results show that heart and brain function are more closely related than appearances would suggest. While these results might not have immediate clinical translation, they emphasize that assessment of cognitive function should be part of the evaluation of future cardiovascular risk.”

In Medical News Today, Sabayan is quoted as explaining why this correlation may exist.

“Worse brain functioning — in particular, in executive function — could reflect disease of the brain vascular supply, which in turn would predict, as it did, a higher likelihood of stroke. And, since blood vessel disease in the brain is closely related to blood vessel disease in the heart, that’s why low test scores also predicted a greater risk of heart attacks.”

The researchers have also reiterated that while the correlation between cognitive function and heart attacks is notable and medically important, the risk of heart attack among people with lowered cognitive function is still quite low. Less than 14 percent of the “low” category actually experienced heart attacks during the three years they were studied. So don’t worry if you have a little bit of trouble handling brain teasers or heavy-duty planning: that in and of itself is not enough to indicate you’re at a high risk for heart attacks.

[Image: James Heilman, MD/Wikimedia Commons]