Dr. Ed Manno, who did not take part in the study, is a neurologist at Cleveland Clinic.
"They did a number of neuron-psychological tests to evaluate whether they'd get demented over time. And what they found is that those patients who had this irregular heartbeat were more likely to get demented at an earlier age," Dr. Manno said.
Atrial fibrillation is a type of irregular heartbeat that is common in old age. So, University of Alabama researchers studied more than 5,000 people ages 65 and older, testing their memory and thinking skills each year for an average of seven years. They found people who developed atrial fibrillation were more likely to experience lower memory and thinking scores at earlier ages than those with no atrial fibrillation history.
Researchers now think people who develop atrial fibrillation may be more likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia at earlier ages.
Dr. Manno says to remember when you're doing things to keep your heart healthy, your brain will benefit, too.
"The vessels are the same. They're located in different organs, but they're all the same. For instance, blockages of the carotid artery are one of the best markers that you have blockages in the coronary or heart arteries also," Dr. Manno said.
Complete findings for this study are available online in the journal "Neurology."