A simple heart scan may predict if you’re at risk of dementia in the next 10 years, study finds

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A simple heart scan in old age may predict if you’re at risk of dementia in the next 10 years, study finds

  • 75-year-olds with atrial cardiopathy were 35% more likely to develop dementia 
  • Atrial cardiopathy causes heart chamber issues that can be detected with scans 
  • Researchers tracked dementia diagnoses in elderly US adults from 2011 to 2019

Simple heart scans may be able to predict your risk of being diagnosed dementia within a decade, a study suggests.

Researchers found elderly people with abnormalities in their left atrium were a third more likely to develop the disease — even if they showed no sign of heart problems.

It suggests scans normally only used for people with suspected heart disease or heart attack patients could help identify who is at highest risk of dementia.

The left atrium helps pump oxygenated blood to vital organs, including the brain. If the chamber is faulty, it can reduce blood flow to the brain — a risk for dementia.

Atrial cardiopathy is the term for a variety of conditions that can cause the left atrium not to work properly.

It can lead to strokes and an irregular heartbeat, two complications that have also been linked with dementia. 

But the study of more than 5,000 American adults in their 70s concluded atrial cardiopathy was an ‘independent risk factor’.

The researchers, led by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said it could help inform ‘new interventional strategies’.

Researchers found elderly people with abnormalities in their left atrium are 35 per cent more likely to suffer with dementia. Graphic shows: The left atrium pumps freshly-oxygenated blood into the left ventricle, where it is taken out the heart by the aorta and sent to the brain via the carotid arteries



Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders (those affecting the brain) which impact memory, thinking and behaviour. 

There are many different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.

Some people may have a combination of types of dementia.

Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience their dementia in their own unique way.

Dementia is a global concern but it is most often seen in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live into very old age.


The Alzheimer’s Society reports there are more than 900,000 people living with dementia in the UK today. This is projected to rise to 1.6million by 2040.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting between 50 and 75 per cent of those diagnosed.

In the US, it’s estimated there are 5.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers. A similar percentage rise is expected in the coming years.

As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of them developing dementia.

Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.


Currently there is no cure for dementia.

But new drugs can slow down its progression and the earlier it is spotted the more effective treatments are.

Source: Alzheimer’s Society

Around 900,000 people are thought to be living with dementia in the UK, with rates expected to increase with an ageing population. 

The figure is nearly seven times higher in the US, with 6.2million blighted by the memory-robbing condition.

There is no cure for the disease, meaning doctors can only prescribe drugs that lessen its symptoms.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, looked at 5,078 adults who didn’t have dementia from North Carolina, Maryland and Mississippi.

They had an average age of 75 at the start of the study.

Participants’ hearts were scanned between 2011 to 2013 using transthoracic echocardiograms — an ultrasound of the heart. 

The scans are usually given to people who have had a heart attack or to diagnose heart valve problems or congenital heart disease.

Participants came back for second tests between 2016 and 2017 and third tests between 2018 to 2019 to measure their brain performance and look for dementia, as well as check their hearts again. 

Doctors assessed their memory, reaction times, language and problem solving skills through a combination of cognitive tests in-person and on the phone, as well as interviewing patients’ loved ones in some cases.

Doctors used the scores to diagnose them with dementia according to official criteria. 

In total, 763 people had the brain disorder by 2019 – with those with atrial cardiopathy at a 35 per cent increased risk.

The risk remained even after accounting for other lifestyle factors like smoking and high blood pressure. 

Writing in the paper, the researchers said: ‘We found that the presence of atrial cardiopathy was significantly associated with an increased risk of dementia.

‘We found that both [atrial fibrillation] and stroke mediated some of the effect between atrial cardiopathy and dementia, but that the relative contributions was [less than] 10 per cent. 

‘These findings reveal that a state of atrial cardiopathy, which precedes [atrial fibrillation] and stroke, contributes to the risk of dementia, independent of [atrial fibrillation] and stroke. 

‘We cautiously suggest that an understanding of this relationship might provide a basis for new interventional strategies to help thwart the development of dementia.’ 

Atrial cardiopathy is a term used to describe a range of disorders that affect the ability of the atria to pump blood through the heart.



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