Study confirms link between traumatic brain injury and dementia

Computer artwork of a brain in side view with the brain's neural network represented by lines and flashes

In the largest study of its kind, researchers have found that traumatic brain injury is associated with an increased risk of dementia.

A single, mild brain injury increased future dementia risk by 17 percent, Fann said. 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.

The survey of 36 years' worth of data - collected from the Danish national patient register - found that the risk of dementia rose with the number and severity of brain injuries, a team wrote in The Lancet Psychiatry, a medical journal.

'There are 850,000 people with dementia - this number is set to rise to 1 million by 2021 and more research is urgently needed to fill the gaps in our understanding of lifestyle factors that increase dementia risk'.

Still, the lead author, Dr. Jesse R. Fann, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said that the absolute risk of getting dementia as young as 50 is quite low.

According to the UN's World Health Organisation, about 50 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, including Alzheimer's Disease - the most common form with about two-thirds of cases. The study also examined the impact of sustaining multiple separate brain injuries and the likelihood of subsequently developing dementia. Leading causes include falls, motor vehicle accidents, and assaults.

The overall risk of dementia in individuals with a history of TBI was 24 percent higher than those without a history of TBI, after accounting for other risk factors for the disease.

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Fann said it's important to recognize that most people who sustain a single concussion do not develop dementia. "Our findings do not suggest that everyone who suffers a traumatic brain injury will go on to develop dementia in later life".

The potential link between TBI and dementia has become a pressing issue among military veterans and participants of contact sports such as boxing, football, soccer, and hockey.

He added: "This study certainly reinforces the fact that sports in which head injury occurs are risky and may make us susceptible to dementia".

While 85 per cent of the TBIs diagnosed were classed as mild, researchers said they are still likely to have been more serious concussions as the symptoms had to be severe or persistent enough to warrant a trip to hospital.

Professor Jonathan Schott of UCL's Institute of Neurology said the research provides "perhaps the best evidence yet that traumatic brain injury is a risk factor for dementia", but said further work was required to differentiate types of injuries, such as sport-related concussions, and how they affect the brain.

"There are some cognitive rehabilitation strategies that may decrease the cognitive deficits associated with a brain injury", he said.

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