Older individuals struggling with abnormal heartbeats may be more inclined to develop cognitive impairment or dementia earlier, a new study shows.

Researchers have found that the condition known as atrial fibrillation, which affects nearly 2.7 million Americans, is also linked to memory and thinking problems. Abnormal heartbeats could lead to blood clots, stroke, and other heart complications, but stroke has been previously linked to increased cognitive deterioration.

"If there is indeed a link between atrial fibrillation and memory and thinking decline, the next steps are to learn why that decline happens and how we can prevent that decline," said Evan Thacker, the lead author and a statistician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham's School of Public Health.

The research involved tracking nearly 5,000 patients ages 65 and above and asked them to take memory and thinking tests every year over the course of seven years. During the investigation, which became known as the Cardiovascular Health Study, almost 11 percent of the participants developed abnormal heartbeats.

Ultimately, researchers found that those who developed the condition at the age of 80 dropped 10 points out of their 100-point tests over the next five years, when compared to the average drop of six points to those without abnormal heartbeats.

"Problems with memory and thinking are common for people as they get older. Our study shows that on average, problems with memory and thinking may start earlier or get worse more quickly in people who have atrial fibrillation," Thacker said. "This means that heart health is an important factor related to brain health."

Additionally, another brain function test found that 80-year-olds with atrial fibrillation had lower scores compared to those without the condition.

A possible explanation for this was that the small blood clots that lodge themselves in the brain are minor at first but contribute to long-term damage, or the irregular heartbeats that produce low blood flow to the brain may lead to small brain damage that incurs over time.

The team is now attempting intervention methods that could prevent the cognitive impairments from developing in patients with irregular heartbeats.

Source: Thacker EL, McKnight B, Psaty BM, et al. Atrial fibrillation and cognitive decline. Neurology. 2013.