The most recent data indicates that atrial fibrillation (A-Fib or AF) is the most common form of heart arrhythmia. A heart arrhythmia is the term given to an anomaly in which the heart beats to slowly or too fast or in an otherwise irregular way (as described by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
While atrial fibrillation, on its own, is not necessarily cause for any concern—as it is not immediately life-threatening—it can lead to other problems which can complicate your health. Most commonly, A-Fib can lead to blood clots which have the possibility to break off into the blood stream and then lodge in an artery; this cuts of blood supply to the brain which can result in stroke.
A new study has found, though, that many patients diagnosed with Atrial fibrillation also appear to be at a higher risk for dementia. Even after taking into account other health variables—including age, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, renal failure, hypertension, smoking history, prior cerebral vascular accident, prior myocardial infarction, and heart failure—they found that dementia is still at a higher risk.
But they also found that those with the higher dementia risk had also been prescribed the AF drug warfarin.
“Our study results are the first to show that there are significant cognitive risk factors for patients treated with warfarin over a long period of time regardless of the indication for anticoagulation,” explains lead study author Dr. T. Jared Bunch, who is the director of heart rhythm research at Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute as well as the medical director for heart rhythm services with the Intermountain Healthcare system.
But while the elevated dementia risk appears to be linked with warfarin in some way, the researchers also found that the risk remains regardless of how well the warfarin works. Similarly, they found elevated dementia risk for non-AF patients who have been prescribed warfarin for issues like valvular heart disease and thromboembolism.
While this report is certainly concerning, it is more important to remember that the research only shows an association between warfarin and higher dementia risk. So far, the researchers do not know why this link exists and have not determined a cause-and-effect relationship.