Thanks to modern medicine, more and more people born with congenital heart defects survive past childhood. However, with that survival comes a realization of the risk of dementia. A new study shows that adults born with heart defects are more likely to develop early-onset dementia, which is defined by experiencing symptoms before reaching age 65.
Dementia is a term that describes conditions where patients experience memory decline and other cognitive impairments. For example, Alzheimer’s disease is considered a common type of dementia. From Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark, published in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation, researchers show how all kinds of dementia are more likely to affect the 1.4 million adults living with heart defects in the United States.
"Previous studies showed that people born with heart defects have a higher risk of neurodevelopmental problems in childhood, such as epilepsy and autism, but this is, to our knowledge, the first study to examine the potential for dementia later in adult life," explained lead author Carina N. Bagge, B.Sc.
Bagge and other researchers recruited 10,623 adults born with heart defects to compare to healthy controls for the new observational study. They found that the risk of any type of dementia for the adults with heart defects was 60 percent higher than the general population. The risk differential of early-onset dementia was even greater: 160 percent higher than the general population.
Additionally, the study showed that the risk of dementia was even higher when adults born with heart defects also had other risk factors for heart disease, including atrial fibrillation, heart failure, and diabetes. Individuals born with heart defects are more likely to develop these factors, but these heart disease risk factors also increase the risk of dementia independently of congenital heart defects.
In response to the results of the study, researchers highlight the importance of applying new knowledge to clinical screenings in order to predict or event prevent the onset of dementia. However, they also stress the importance of considering how medicine has changed over the past century.
“Modern treatment has improved greatly, and as a result we can't directly generalize these results to children born today,” Bagge explained. “We need further work to understand the risks in the modern era.”