Researchers of a new study believe that even a mild concussion after the age of 65 could increase risk of developing dementia. Compared to people of middle age, head injuries appear to pose a more significant risk for seniors.
As reported by Dr. Raquel Gardner, study lead author and clinical research fellow with San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, this finding is surprising. It also suggests that the older the brain is the more vulnerable to traumatic brain injury it becomes, even if the injury is not of a severe nature.
Looking at the findings in a more positive light, Dr. Gardner says that the younger a person’s brain is the more resilient it is to mild traumatic brain injury or it could take longer for symptoms of dementia to appear. No matter how the findings are viewed, Dr. Gardner believes the study findings can be beneficial in pushing efforts of preventing head injury in older people.
Medical professionals in general understand the importance of preventing falls, which in turn prevents bodily injury. However, from what researchers found, while preventing a fall might not be enough to prevent bodily injury, it might help prevent the onset of dementia.
Although the study uncovered some very critical things, researchers were unable to make a direct connection as to how brain injuries could lead to dementia. In addition, the study does not prove the injury was the actual cause of mental decline. As explained by Dr. Gardner, the study was launched so researchers could better understand what appears to be a link between brain injuries and dementia.
There have been several prior studies done that show traumatic brain injuries in early life do in fact increase the risk of developing dementia but establishing a link for people of older age has been more challenging. Because the highest rates of traumatic brain injuries in the US are in older adults, identifying a link would be extremely beneficial.
As part of this new study, roughly 52,000 emergency room patients in California were tracked from 2005 to 2011. Each one of these patients had suffered some type of traumatic brain injury in 2005 or 2006 and they were all 65 years of age or older.
Researchers found that fewer than 6% of the patients with brain injuries outside the brain developed dementia whereas over 8% of those with mild to moderate traumatic brain injuries developed the disease.
Also discovered was that at age 55 and older, moderate to severe brain injury was linked with an increased risk of dementia but for participants of the study who were 65 and older, a very mild brain injury had the same outcome. If someone falls and gets a traumatic brain injury, there is a 26% greater chance of developing dementia than if that individual had fallen and broken a limb.
In the case of people with more than one traumatic brain injury, risk of developing dementia doubled. However, whether someone with a concussion recovers from a mental standpoint or ends up with dementia will probably depend on numerous factors such as medical conditions, genetics, environmental exposures, and even characteristics of the injury itself.
Kristen Dams-O’Connor, co-director of Mount Sanai Brain Injury Research Center thought the study was well done but she cautioned that just because an older person experiences a brain injury does not automatically mean they will end up with dementia. Dr. Gardner agrees to some extent, saying there are still many mysteries regarding the brain.