Heads up: Even minor brain injuries may increase dementia risk

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A new study appears to headbutt the notion that only moderate or severe brain injuries can predispose people to dementia. In the largest study of brain injury and dementia risk to date, researchers found that even minor head injuries, such as concussions, may pose a threat.

The study was led by by Dr. Kristine Yaffe, a professor at the University of California and director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, who presented her findings Monday at the Alzheimer s Association International Conference in France. It reviewed the medical records of approximately 282,000 veterans aged 55 and over who were treated at Veterans Health Administration (VHA) hospitals from 1997 to 2000 and had at least one follow-up visit between 2001 and 2007. None of the veterans had dementia or Alzheimer s disease at the beginning of the study, and stroke patients were excluded. Of the 4,902 veterans who had suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) which ranges from a concussion to a skull fracture 15 percent were diagnosed with dementia within seven years, versus 7 percent of the non-TBI group.

ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross finds the data disconcerting but valuable. A doubling of the risk of dementia in the TBI group makes a convincing case for a link between it and such injuries, he says. It appears that even minor brain injuries can cause dementia later on, and that, as indicated in other studies, the risk from such traumas is cumulative. Based on these data, close monitoring of TBI patients and protection from further injuries is of major importance.

The study authors, however, caution that these results don t imply that every soldier or student athlete who has had a concussion will go on to develop dementia. To help prevent the nearly 1.7 million brain injuries that occur in the U.S. annually, Dr. David Cifu, national director of physical medicine and rehabilitation for the VHA, recommends fall-proofing your home, as well as wearing helmets and seat belts when necessary.