Heart attacks can lead to reduced blood flow to the brain, which can cause brain damage. Symptoms can include memory loss and balance issues. Sometimes, a heart attack can lead to brain damage and death.

A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, is when a vessel that supplies blood to the heart becomes blocked.

A heart attack can cause brain damage when the heart becomes damaged or weak enough that it affects blood flow to the brain.

This article will explain the effects a heart attack can have on the brain, what symptoms brain damage might cause following a heart attack, and treatment and recovery for brain damage following a heart attack.

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A lack of oxygen to the brain due to the heart not correctly pumping blood around the body can lead to brain damage. The brain depends on a constant flow of oxygen-rich blood to function.

Any significant decrease or failure in oxygen-rich blood reaching the brain can damage brain tissue and, in some cases, cause death.

Several symptoms following a heart attack may indicate brain damage, including:

Sometimes, brain damage after a heart attack can be fatal. However, many people make a good recovery after experiencing this complication.

Brain damage after a heart attack is caused by the heart not pumping enough oxygen-rich blood to the brain. There are different possible causes.

A heart attack happens when the blood supply to the heart muscle is cut off, caused by a clot blocking blood flow in one of the coronary arteries. The heart can pump blood around the body during a heart attack, but blood flow and oxygen levels may reduce, which can lead to other problems that increase the risk of brain damage. For example:

  • Cardiac shock, also called cardiogenic shock, is when the heart cannot pump enough blood around the body, including to the brain.
  • Cardiac arrest during a heart attack raises the risk of having an abnormal heart rhythm called ventricular fibrillation. Ventricular fibrillation means that the heart is not beating effectively at all, which is a serious medical issue.

A heart attack could also cause ventricular tachycardia, which could result in a lack of heartbeat or a very fast and unstable heart rhythm.

Hypoxic-ischemic brain injury occurs when the brain does not receive oxygen and then begins to receive oxygen again. An example of this is when the heart restarts after cardiac arrest, such as from the use of a defibrillator to restore the heartbeat.

Brain damage after a heart attack is a leading cause of significant disability or death following resuscitation.

Learn more about brain hypoxia.

The first target is to help prevent brain damage by recognizing a heart attack and seeking medical help as soon as possible. This can help prevent a heart attack from progressing to cardiac arrest and restore blood flow as quickly as possible if the heart stops beating. This will minimize the risk of brain damage.

The first steps of medical help to try to restore blood flow may include cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

View our visual guide to performing CPR.

Later support

Support is available to help manage and ease the effects of heart attack-related brain damage. This typically includes working with a team of specialists.

Support will typically involve the person being in the hospital for several days to weeks following a heart attack. The person will then receive support as an outpatient. They may require months to years of treatment to recover. Often, a person can recover fully, but they may experience lasting effects caused by brain damage from the heart attack.

Specialists include doctors, occupational therapists, and speech and language therapists. They can help with restoring skills through exercise, helping to prevent further deterioration by ensuring a person uses their muscles as much as possible. They can also help with speaking, supporting strategies, and adjustments to housing if necessary.

Learn about Medicare coverage for occupational therapy and speech therapy.

Most cardiac arrest survivors have some level of brain injury. Recovery times will vary greatly depending on the extent of the brain injury.

The American Heart Association state that several factors will influence brain recovery, including:

  • age
  • general health before the heart attack
  • time to receive appropriate medical care
  • results of medical tests soon after the heart attack

Research shows around 90% of those with brain damage following cardiac arrest have made a “good neurological recovery” within 6 months to 1 year.

Learn about the possible stages of stroke recovery.

Heart attacks can lead to reduced blood flow to the brain. There can be several causes, including cardiac arrest, when the heart stops pumping blood around the body.

A lack of oxygen-rich blood reaching the brain can lead to brain tissue damage. This can lead to symptoms such as loss of consciousness, memory loss, and problems with speaking. It can sometimes be fatal.

There are factors that influence recovery, including age and general health before the heart attack.

If a doctor confirms a person has brain damage, speech therapists and occupational therapists will help support recovery and advise on housing and support adjustment needs.