Risk of Dementia Increased By Brain Injuries, Landmark Study Claims

Wednesday 11th April 2018

People who have suffered a brain injury are at an increased risk of suffering from dementia later in life, a study of 2.8 million people claims.

The analysis, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, found that people who had one or more traumatic brain injuries were 24% more at risk of getting dementia than those who did not have such an injury, with the greatest risk being with people who acquire their brain injury in their 20s, as compared to those who suffer a traumatic brain injury later in life.

The study, which focused on people in Denmark over a 36 year period, did not separate between different causes of brain injury, including falls, assaults and vehicular accidents, but did note that the more severe an injury, the greater the risk of dementia later in life. Whilst there has been quite a few studies on the connection between head injuries and dementia, the resulting evidence had been mixed, and this study is by far the biggest of its kind on dementia.

That the greatest risk comes from injuries earlier in life has increased the spotlight on ensuring that efforts to stop or reduce the risk of traumatic injury are adequate, particularly for risk factors that disproportionately affect younger people, such as contact and combat sports.

Other experts have noted that lifestyle factors are arguably more important than brain injury in affecting the risk of dementia, and the study notes that less than 5% of the people in the study ended up getting dementia, so whilst the risk factor was increased, it is still relatively small. As the survey was based in Denmark, it also may not reflect risk factors in other countries.

The connection between head trauma and dementia has entered the news recently as the result of a number of sports people who took part in contact sports reporting symptoms of dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The most recent risk factor was the number of footballers who commonly headed the ball were diagnosed with dementia, something that was documented in the BBC documentary Dementia, Football and Me, hosted by former England captain Alan Shearer.

CTE, known more colloquially as dementia pugilistica or simply “punch drunk syndrome”, was originally seen in boxing and other contact sports, with a link between boxing (a sport with a disproportionate amount of head trauma) and dementia found early, however it was seen as a boxer’s disease and would not be taken seriously as a risk factor outside of boxing, let alone outside of sports until the mid 2000s, where a number of American Football players, mixed martial artists, pro wrestlers died as the result of complications or suicide in which the early signs of dementia were a primary factor. This has led to a number of class action lawsuits, the biggest of which led to an uncapped payout which could total over $1 billion to a number of former NFL players suffering from dementia as a result of traumatic brain injury.

Dementia is a progressive, devastating and currently incurable disease, however this provides an insight in one of several risk factors, and allows people who engage in activities in which traumatic brain injury is more likely than others to better prepare themselves and keep themselves safe.