Boston University Team Finds Association Between Atrial Fibrillation and Lower Cognitive Performance

in College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Health & Medicine, News Releases
October 24th, 2006

Contact: Kira Jastive, 617-358-1240 |

(Boston) — Researchers from Boston University have found a link between atrial fibrillation (AFIB) and low cognitive performance in men. Using a subset of participants from the Framingham Offspring Study, part of the long-running Framingham Heart Study, the team found an association between AFIB and poor mental functioning. The results appear in the current issue of the Journal of Stroke and Cerebrovascular Disease.

The research team, led by Merrill Elias, a research professor of epidemiology in BU’s Mathematics and Statistics Department, found a link between AFIB and reduced cognitive function in areas such as visual organization, memory, attention, and concentration. Atrial fibrillation, the most common cardiac arrhythmia, is a major risk factor for stroke and has been associated with reduced cardiac output, decreased blood flow to the brain, blood vessel blockages, and brain lesions.

The results of the new study showed that men with the abnormal heart rhythm, but free from senile dementia or stroke, had significantly lower scores on multiple tests of mental ability compared to men with no presence of AFIB.

Elias and his team related the presence of AFIB in participants to cognitive performance using the Framingham Offspring cognitive test battery. Relations between AFIB and test performance were statistically adjusted for relations between multiple cardiovascular disease risk factors, stroke, cardiovascular events, and treatment with drugs, coronary artery bypass graft surgery, age, and education. With these adjustments, AFIB was correlated to lower performance for the following abilities: abstract reasoning, visual memory, visual organization, verbal memory, scanning and tracking, and executive functioning.

The study included 1,011 Framingham Offspring Study males –59 with AFIB and 952 without. Women were excluded from the study due to the low incidence of AFIB.

“A variety of factors linking AFIB to decreased cognitive performance have been suggested, including undiagnosed stroke, lesions on the brain, and reduced cardiac output,” said Elias. “What we need now are additional studies that will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms that cause men with AFIB to have poorer cognition.”

The Framingham Heart Study began in 1955 and has followed three generations of participants, measuring the incidence of cardiovascular disease and stroke and determining the risk of various associated factors. The study, based in Framingham, MA., started before cardiovascular risk factors for heart disease and stroke were well understood and before patients were routinely treated for AFIB.

The Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Boston University offers a strong research environment in algebra, applied statistics, dynamical systems and their applications, geometry, mathematical neuroscience and biology, mathematical physics, number theory, partial differential equations, and probability. The department includes the Center for Biodynamics and the Statistics and Consulting Unit, which provides statistical support and consulting services for Framingham Heart Study investigators and for research projects and clinical trials in the United States and elsewhere.

Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 30,000 students, it is the fourth largest independent university in the United States. BU contains 17 colleges and schools along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes which are central to the school’s research and teaching mission.

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