New research finds link between concussion and dementia

Wayne CurryApr 12, 2018

A team from the University of Washington has found that the risk of dementia is significantly higher for people with a history of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) than for people with no history of TBI.

Researchers analyzed 36 years of data from 2.8 million people and found that those who sustained TBIs were 24 percent more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's or other dementias than those with no history of TBI.

A single severe traumatic brain injury raised the chances of developing dementia by more than a third. Whereas two-three traumatic brain injuries is associated with a 33 percent increase in dementia, four traumatic brain injuries is associated with about a 60 percent increase of risk.

However, even a mild TBI (concussion) increased the risk by 17%.

"Severe TBI is particularly frequent in young people, and it is concerning that the risk of dementia is particular high in relatively young persons who suffer TBI", co-author Jakob Christensen, an associate professor of neurology at Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark, said in a statement.

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Dementia affects 47 million people worldwide, and that number is expected to double in the next 20 years, the researchers said. TBI occurs when an external force such as a bump or blow to the head disrupts the normal function of the brain. In the study group, 5.3 percent of dementia sufferers had experienced a brain injury when younger, compared to 4.7 percent of people without dementia. Among first TBI diagnoses, 85 percent had been characterized as mild and 15 percent had been characterized as severe or skull fracture.

Among men and women with TBI histories, men had slightly higher rate of developing dementia (30 percent vs. 19 percent). The study also examined the impact of sustaining multiple separate brain injuries and the likelihood of subsequently developing dementia. Those affected should avoid certain behaviors, researchers suggest.

"These uncertainties notwithstanding, this study reinforces the importance of trying to prevent injury to the brain", he said.

Measuring pupil reactivity to light could assist with treatment decisions for brain injuries, they say.

Fann said more research is needed to understand who is at greatest risk of dementia and what other factors contribute to that risk. "Our findings suggest that improved traumatic brain injury prevention programmes may have an opportunity to reduce the burden of dementia worldwide". This also applies to minor injuries such as a concussion. It extends from a mild sports concussion - an elbow to the head in a basketball game, for example - that results in very brief or no unconsciousness and no structural harm to the brain, to the most severe brain injuries that can cause extended unconsciousness, coma or even prove fatal.

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