CNN  — 

Having a heart attack may put you at risk of accelerated cognitive decline in later years, above and beyond what is considered appropriate for the aging mind, according to a new study.

Everyone’s brain ages as the years pass, some more than others. What’s considered normal is typically quite subtle: Processing speed slows, the ability to pay attention declines, and it can be common to have trouble finding the right word. However, age-related cognitive decline is quite different from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and should not be confused with those, experts say.

In the new study, published Tuesday in the journal JAMA Neurology, researchers analyzed data from six major studies on heart disease and cognition conducted between 1971 and 2019 in the United States. None of the 30,465 people chosen for those studies had dementia or experienced a heart attack or stroke before the study started, and all underwent at least one cognitive assessment.

During the course of the research, however, over 1,000 of the participants had an acute myocardial infarction, or heart attack. No immediate change in cognition was seen, but the cognitive scores of those who had a heart attack accelerated over the next six or so years at a much steeper rate than that of their peers who did not have a heart attack.

The increase in the annual rate of decline for people who had heart attacks was small, wrote Dr. Eric Smith and Dr. Lisa Silbert in an accompanying editorial. Smith is the medical director of the Cognitive Neurosciences Clinic at the University of Calgary in Alberta, and Silbert is a professor of neurology at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine in Portland.

However, “it is possible that accruing subclinical decline over years or decades could eventually impair function or decrease cognitive reserve, making the person more vulnerable to the effects of age-related neurodegenerative pathologies,” Smith and Silbert wrote.

The steepest annual rate of decline after heart attack was seen in White compared with Black individuals and in men compared with women, the study found, and could not be explained by stroke or new atrial fibrillation — an irregular, often rapid heart rhythm that can lead to blood clots in the heart.

This isn’t the first study to find a connection between accelerated cognitive decline and heart attacks, Smith and Silbert noted.