Getting prompt and effective heart attack treatment may help you avoid complications that can affect brain functions such as memory, focus, and decision making.

There is a common expression among health experts that “what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.” It means that the behaviors that support heart health, like getting regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding smoking, are also helpful for brain function.

However, the reverse is also true. What harms the heart may also harm the brain.

A heart attack, which injures heart tissue and can reduce healthy heart function, may also cause brain damage and affect a person’s long-term cognitive health. Signs that cognitive decline may be underway include:

  • changes in memory
  • inability to pay attention
  • difficulty making decisions

If you can respond quickly to heart attack symptoms and take the necessary steps to restore healthy heart function, you may be able to prevent or at least reduce any damage to your brain and thinking skills.

A heart attack can damage the brain because it reduces the heart’s ability to pump oxygenated blood to organs, muscles, and tissue throughout the body, including the brain. Without enough oxygen and other nutrients, brain cells start to die, and the functions those cells were responsible for — such as thinking or speaking — will diminish.

A 2023 study suggests that while short-term cognitive decline may not be a heart attack complication, long-term deficits can affect functional areas such as memory, decision making, attention, and language. But the researchers acknowledged that the exact mechanisms connecting a heart attack and long-term cognitive decline are not clear.

They suggest that a heart attack may be associated with brain damage because certain risk factors for heart attack, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and inflammation, can also negatively affect brain health.

A 2021 study suggests that a heart attack can trigger increased inflammation in the brain, which in turn can directly affect brain health and function.

A heart attack can also raise the risk of depression, which may lead to brain damage. The trauma of a heart attack and the prospect of diminished health or the reminder of a person’s mortality can contribute to the onset of depression after a heart attack.

For example, a 2021 study suggests that at least 20–30% of individuals who have had heart attacks are diagnosed with anxiety or depression, though that number may be as high as 43% in the first year after a heart attack.

In addition, a 2019 study suggests that depression can lead to a significant loss of grey matter volume in the brain over time. Grey matter includes cells responsible for memory, emotion, movement, and other functions.

Initial changes in brain function after a heart attack may be subtle. It’s also worth noting that some changes in memory and thinking skills are normal as you get older and are not signs of brain damage or dementia.

However, symptoms that could indicate post-heart attack brain damage and that should be evaluated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), include:

  • confusion with time and place, such as knowing what day it is or feeling lost in familiar surroundings
  • difficulty making decisions and using poor judgment
  • increased problems with balance and coordination
  • memory loss that interferes with everyday functioning, such as forgetting appointments
  • trouble with basic tasks, such as home finances and executing favorite recipes

Certain aspects of brain damage that develop after a heart attack may be reversible with healthy lifestyle behaviors.

For example, stress management may help reduce inflammation in the brain and therefore enhance recovery after a heart attack.

A 2018 study suggests that behaviors such as yoga, meditation, and breathing techniques may help bring down neuroinflammation while improving cognitive function and protecting against depression and anxiety.

Other steps you can take to help recover from brain damage after a heart attack include behaviors that support both brain and heart health, such as:

  • staying physically active, such as exercising all or most days of the week
  • following a heart-healthy diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains and limits processed foods, saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars
  • keeping your blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose (blood sugar) levels in healthy ranges
  • getting quality sleep for 7–9 hours a night

Some brain damage after a heart attack is common. Quickly receiving treatment to restore healthy heart function can help avoid or limit damage.

You can also preserve brain health by taking steps to reduce inflammation like following a heart-healthy diet. Adopting other heart-healthy behaviors like managing stress and staying active will support optimal brain health, too.