Memory loss in the elderly could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s, but a new study finds that it can also increase a senior's risk of stroke or death.  

"Low cognitive function is generally associated with poor neurological health and brain function," said Kumar Rajan, lead author of the study and assistant professor of internal medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, in a press release. "Worsening of neurological health can lead to several health problems with stroke being one of them."

More than 7,200 Americans over 65 years old were involved in the study. The researchers evaluated their short- and long-term memory, attention, awareness, and other mental functions. Four tests were given to the participants every three years. During their research, they concluded that participants with lower test scores were 61 percent more likely to have a stroke.

"Stroke in old age can be caused by poor cognitive function; whereas, faster decline in cognitive function can be caused by stroke,” Rajan said. He and his colleagues also noted that race played a role in stroke risk. Blacks with declined mental function had a fivefold higher risk of stroke compared to their white counterparts.

Rajan and his team also found that mental function declined twice as fast as before a stroke, further increasing the risk of death. Stroke coupled with mental decline increased risk of death. Participants who had previous strokes had lower baseline scores on their cognitive tests. Seventy-eight percent of previous stroke victims died during follow ups.

The researchers said that although other studies have looked at mental decline after a stroke, none have looked at the opposite: stroke risk after mental decline. By testing cognitive abilities, doctors might be able to identify patients who have an increased risk for stroke. "From a care standpoint, [thinking and memory] decline is not only a strong marker for neurological deterioration and physical health in older adults, but also serves as a marker for stroke in old age,” Rajan said.

Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 800,000 people die every year from a stroke. Strokes occur when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted or reduced. When this happens, the brain is deprived of oxygen and nutrients, killing brain cells. Signs that someone could be having a stroke include numbness, confusion, trouble seeing, severe headache, and trouble walking.

Source: Rajan K, Aggarwal N, Wilson R, Everson-Rose S, Evans D. Association of Cognitive Functioning, Incident Stroke, and Mortality in Older Adults. Stroke. 2014.