01/02/2012 01:31 GMT

Heart Failure Linked To Decline In Mental Health And Loss Of Grey Matter

Australian researchers have discovered a link between heart failure and the decline in mental processes and a loss of grey matter in the brain, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Western Australia found that patients who suffer from heart failure generally have greater problems with their short and long-term memory than healthy people with no heart problems.

Health experts from the study, published in the European Heart Journal, analysed data of 35 people with heart failure, 56 with ischaemic heart disease and 64 healthy people. All participants were aged over 45 and were not suffering any apparent cognitive impairment.

Researchers carried out a series of tests, including MRI scans, which looked at the volume of grey matter in the brain. The results showed that people with heart failure had worse immediate and long-term memory than healthy people, and experienced changes in their brain lined to mentally demanding cognitive and emotional processing.

Due to memory problems, researchers claim that this could mean people might risk forgetting their medication, as they cannot remember simple, everyday tasks.

"What we found in this study is that both ischaemic heart disease and heart failure are associated with a loss of cells in certain brain regions that are important for the modulation of emotions and mental activity," explains professor Osvaldo Almeida from the study.

"Such a loss is more pronounced in people with heart failure, but can also be seen in people with ischaemic heart disease without heart failure.

"Similarly, people with ischaemic heart disease and heart failure show subtle deficits in cognitive abilities compared with controls...and again those deficits are more pronounced in people with heart failure.

"Our study was not sufficiently large to show with certainty that the cognitive performance of participants with heart failure was worse than that of participants with ischaemic heart disease, although both showed deficits compared with controls."

Heart failure was also associated with changes in brain regions that are important for memory, reasoning and planning.

"There is evidence that they optimise performance in complex tasks that require 'mental effort," adds professor Almeida.

"Consequently, loss of brain cells in these regions may affect a person's performance in a number of different areas, such as memory, behaviour modification, inhibition, both emotional and cognitive, and organisation.

"Our findings indicate that diseases that affect the heart affect the brain as well, and that the changes in organ function and blood circulation associated with heart failure seem to compound these effects in the brain."

Natasha Stewart, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), told The Huffington Post: “Heart failure can affect people in very different ways. More research is needed to confirm the effect on mental processes, so that treatment can be targeted to look after patients in the best possible way.

"The biggest implication of this research is that patients may find it difficult to stick to treatment regimes and forget to take their medication. It is important to speak to your GP and your heart failure nurse about what is best for you. Together you can find a way to make your meds a part of your daily routine so that they are less easily forgotten.”

Heart failure affects around 900,000 people in the UK alone with symptoms including breathlessness, extreme tiredness and swelling of the legs, ankles and feet. The condition tends to affect older people, is more common in men than in women, and can be caused by high blood pressure or a heart attack.