After one of the largest ever investigations into the link between traumatic brain injury (TBI) and cognitive decline in later life, Danish and USA researchers concluded that the younger a person was when sustaining a head injury, the higher the risk of developing Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
This research encompassed a large study population, 36 years of follow-up, and access to a uniform healthcare system that tracks the number and severity of TBIs.
A single severe traumatic brain injury raised the chances of developing dementia by more than a third.
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'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'.
For years, scientists have studied the effects of traumatic brain injuries that appear in professional athletes, looking for ties to dementia later in life.
Fann said future research trying to narrow down why some people with brain injuries get dementia while other don't is important.
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"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. Every year, more than 50 million people worldwide experience a TBI, which occurs when an external force disrupts the brain's normal function.
Among the almost 2.8 million people observed, 4.7 percent had at least one TBI diagnosis. For their first T.B.I. diagnosis, 85 percent were this mild type. Between 1999 and 2013, 126,734 people (4.5%) aged 50 or older were diagnosed with dementia. Those affected should avoid certain behaviors, researchers suggest.
"There are some cognitive rehabilitation strategies that may decrease the cognitive deficits associated with a brain injury", he said. He added: "This study certainly reinforces the fact that sports in which head injury occurs are risky and may make us susceptible to dementia".
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The study also found that the younger a person was when they sustained the TBI, the higher their subsequent risk of developing dementia. 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. "The association of TBI with different causes and how these change across time needs policy attention, as it is likely that prevention needs to be considered at societal, community, and local levels".