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Women with atrial fibrillation more likely to develop dementia



New data suggest a significantly stronger link in women compared with men between atrial fibrillation (AF) and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia.

“Our findings imply that women with AF may be at higher risk for MCI and dementia with potentially more rapid disease progression from normal cognition to MCI or dementia than women without AF or men with and without AF,” wrote authors of a new study led by Kathryn A. Wood, PhD, RN, Neil Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University in Atlanta.

The findings were published online in Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

Researchers used the National Alzheimer’s Coordinating Center data with 43,630 patients and analyzed sex differences between men and women with AF and their performance on neuropsychological tests and cognitive disease progression.

Higher odds of dementia, MCI in women

According to the paper, AF is associated with higher odds of dementia (odds ratio [OR], 3.00; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.22-7.37) in women and MCI in women (OR, 3.43; 95% CI, 1.55-7.55) compared with men.

Women with AF and normal cognition at baseline had a higher risk of disease progression (hazard ratio [HR], 1.26; 95% CI, 1.06-1.50) from normal to MCI and from MCI to vascular dementia (HR, 3.27; 95% CI, 1.89-5.65) than that of men with AF or men and women without AF.

AF is a major public health problem linked with stroke and heart failure, and is an independent risk factor of increased mortality. It is associated with higher risk of cognitive impairment and dementia independent of stroke history.

Cognitive screening for AF patients

The authors wrote that cognitive screening, especially in women, should be part of yearly cardiology visits for patients with AF to help identify early those at highest risk for cognitive disease.

T. Jared Bunch, MD, professor of medicine in the division of cardiovascular medicine at University of Utah in Salt Lake City, said in an interview, “We have learned that how we treat atrial fibrillation can influence risk.”

First, he said, outcomes, including brain health, are better when rhythm control approaches are used within the first year of diagnosis.

“Restoring a normal heart rhythm improves brain perfusion and cognitive function. Next, aggressive rhythm control – such as catheter ablation – is associated with much lower long-term risks of dementia in the [patients]. Finally, early and effective use of anticoagulation in patients with atrial fibrillation lowers risk of stroke, dementia, and cognitive decline.”

Several factors unknown

Dr. Bunch said there are some unknowns in the study, such as how long patients were in atrial fibrillation.

He said one way to address the inequities is to refer women earlier as women are often referred later in disease to specialty care, which can have consequences.

He said it is not known how many people underwent early and effective rhythm control.

“Women also are less likely to receive catheter ablation, a cardioversion, or be placed on antiarrhythmic drugs,” said Dr. Bunch, who was not part of the study. “These also represent potential opportunities to improve outcomes by treating the rhythm in a similar and aggressive manner in both men and women.”

Also unknown is how many people were on effective oral anticoagulation, Dr. Bunch noted.

The study importantly highlights a significant problem surrounding the care of women with AF, he said, but there are strategies to improve outcomes.

In addition to earlier screening and referral for women, providers should recognize that men and women may present differently with different AF symptoms. He added that physicians should offer catheter ablation, the most effective treatment, equally to men and women who are candidates.

In all people, he said, it’s important “to start anticoagulation very early in the disease to lower the risk of micro- and macrothrombotic events that lead to poor brain health and function.”

The study authors and Dr. Bunch declared no relevant financial relationships.

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