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Dr. Dublin's study, which ran from 1994 to 2008, followed 3,045 people. The researchers relied on Group Health's advanced electronic data systems to determine whether participants had atrial fibrillation. The cognitive function of all study participants was evaluated every two years with tests and interviews as part of ACT. Patients whose ACT tests indicated possible dementia had additional tests including physical, neurological, and psychological exams, and many also had brain scans. A panel of experts determined the correct diagnosis for patients with cognitive problems.
Atrial fibrillation affects 3 million Americans. Dr. Dublin says that some ways it might increase dementia risk are:
•weakening the heart's pumping ability, leading to less oxygen going to the brain;
•increasing the chance of tiny blood clots going to the brain, causing small, clinically undetected strokes;
•a combination of these plus other factors that contribute to dementia such as inflammation.
Dr. Dublin said an important next step is studying whether any treatments for atrial fibrillation reduce the risk of developing dementia. The researchers also hope their results reach primary care providers, who are often the main doctors caring for people with atrial fibrillation, dementia, or both.
"Right now, we think we are protecting our patients' brains as long as they don't have a stroke, but tiny insults over time can add up," said Dr. Dublin, who is a primary care physician at Group Health. "This paper is a wakeup call, telling us that we need to learn more about how to protect brain function, while continuing to give patients with atrial fibrillation the best possible care."
Source: Group Health Research Institute