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Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) dementia

Key points

  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) dementia affects your brain’s ability to function. Repeated head injuries cause the condition.

  • CTE dementia affects your thinking, mood and behaviour. It interferes with your day-to-day life.

  • CTE dementia can be prevented, but there’s no known cure. Support is available.

About chronic traumatic encephalopathy dementia

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) dementia is a type of dementia caused by repeated head injuries.

These knocks to your head damage your brain over time. CTE dementia affects your thinking, mood and behaviour. It interferes with your day-to-day life.

If you get concussions, you are at higher risk of developing CTE dementia. But it’s not just concussions. People who have repeated head knock without concussion are also at higher risk of CTE.

There is no known cure for CTE dementia. Prevention is your best protection. But if you’ve been diagnosed with CTE dementia, there is treatment and support to help you live the best life you can.

Causes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy dementia

Chronic encephalopathy dementia (CTE) dementia is caused by repeated or severe blows to your head.

CTE dementia is often seen in people who:

  • play contact sports or sports with risk of knocks, like football, boxing, cycling and equestrian
  • experience assault, including family violence
  • have been in active war zones or exposed to explosions
  • have experienced multiple falls with head knocks.

You’re unlikely to develop CTE dementia from only one or a few knocks to the head.

You can prevent CTE dementia by avoiding or minimising head injuries. If your sport or job has a risk of head injury, talk to your club or employer about:

  • ways to avoid head injury
  • what to do if someone has a head injury.

Signs and symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy dementia

Someone with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) dementia may experience: 

  • headache or head pressure
  • trouble concentrating
  • confusion
  • trouble making decisions
  • reduced driving ability
  • trouble learning new things
  • loss of sense of direction
  • memory loss
  • disturbed sleep.
  • agitation or anger
  • loss of motivation
  • reduced social activity
  • wandering
  • anxiety, depression or panic
  • impulsiveness
  • loss of empathy.

If you have these symptoms, you might not be able to recognise your own changes. Often a family member or friend will notice them instead. If you or someone else notices these symptoms in you, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.

Diagnosing chronic traumatic encephalopathy dementia

Currently there is no single test that can diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) dementia.

A medical specialist will only make a diagnosis of CTE dementia after careful assessment. This might include:

  • brain scans, including a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • a detailed medical history
  • a physical examination
  • blood and urine tests
  • a psychiatric assessment
  • memory and thinking tests.

If the medical specialist can rule out any other causes, they may diagnose you with CTE dementia.

You might be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but not dementia. If that happens, talk to your doctor about your dementia-like symptoms. There may be another cause.

Treatment and management of chronic traumatic encephalopathy dementia

Right now, there’s no known cure for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) dementia.

However, there are treatments and support services help to ensure your best possible quality of life as you live with the condition.

Your general practitioner can help you manage CTE dementia. A specialist may watch your progress over time to see how your symptoms change and update your treatments.

To take care of your health:

  • avoid alcohol and smoking
  • staying physically active and socially connected
  • talk to a counsellor or psychologist to help with the changes in your thinking, behaviour and mood.

Seeking support

For more CTE dementia support, contact:

Source: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE dementia by Dr Rowena Mobbs (2021)

Dementia expert webinar: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, with Dr Rowena Mobbs

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Last updated
1 February 2024