Report finds deep links between heart disease and brain impairment

A new report from the Heart and Stroke Foundation shows — for the first time — a deep connection between heart disease and brain conditions, such as stroke and cognitive decline.

People with heart failure 2.6 times more likely to experience vascular cognitive impairment

Dr. Jodi Edwards, with the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, says our health care system needs to adapt to accommodate the treatment of people with multiple conditions. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

People suffering from heart disease may be at greater risk of cognitive impairment, according to a new report from the Heart and Stroke Foundation that researchers say shows the deep link between the diseases.

The study, entitled "(Dis)Connected", was based on an analysis of 2.6 million hospitalizations in Canada between 2007 and 2017, and underlies what the authors say is the connection is between heart disease and brain conditions, such as stroke and cognitive decline.

"The most startling finding is that people with heart conditions have a significantly increased risk of vascular cognitive impairment and possibly dementia, because of their underlying vascular disease," said Yves Savoie, the CEO of the foundation, in a news release.

Dr. Jodi Edwards with the University of Ottawa Heart Institute said while emerging data already highlights associations between these diseases, this new report probes even deeper into what those connections are and the extent.

"This is really important because in the aging population we're really seeing individuals that have multiple conditions," Edwards said. "Heart and brain diseases are much more connected than we previously thought. So if you're at risk for one, you're at risk for both."

The study found:

  • People with heart failure are 2.6 times more likely to experience vascular cognitive impairment such as dementia.
  • People with congenital heart disease may have triple the risk of early onset vascular cognitive impairment.
  • People with atrial fibrillation — an irregular or rapid heart beat — are also 1.4 times more likely to experience vascular cognitive impairment.
  • People with heart valve disease have a 25 per cent increased risk of vascular cognitive impairment.
  • Thirty per cent of people who experienced a second stroke are at risk of developing vascular impairment.

"This is something that's an important problem and going to be a real burden both for patients and for our health systems," Edwards said.

Prevention is key

Edwards said prevention is critical in treating vascular conditions and ensuring other serious issues don't develop. 

"[If people] have one condition, such as heart disease, then individuals can talk with their family doctors about their risk for developing a brain disease like dementia," she said.

Pianist Evelyn Greenberg says acting quickly when she experienced an abnormal heart rhythm soon after her stroke saved her life. (Idil Mussa/CBC)
Pianist Evelyn Greenberg, 81, had a stroke in 2018. She was walking to her car when she felt saliva running down the side of her mouth. She also noticed that her face was drooping and her speech was slurred.

She said acting quickly to get treatment for her stroke — as well as an abnormal heart rhythm soon afterwards — saved her life. 

"I want people to be aware that you can get excellent treatment right away and end up without having serious side effects," Greenberg said.

"I got there in time and I saved myself. If you get there quickly, within an hour or two, you can be as lucky as I have been and play the piano again."

Edwards said people are coming with more and more complicated conditions, so the health care system needs to adapt so that patients get the proper treatment they need.

"Our health system is really set up to evaluate patients in terms of a single disease state," she said.

"We now need to modify our systems to be able to accommodate patients with multiple conditions."