Head injuries and dementia, what are the links?

Friday 17 April 2015

New research on the connection between head injuries and the risk of developing dementia will be presented at the Alzheimer’s Disease International and Alzheimer’s Australia National Conference in Perth.

Dr Adrienne Withall, from the School of Public Health & Community Medicine at UNSW Australia, is presenting research on the link between head injuries and the early onset of dementia.

“We can say with confidence that a significant head injury, one that results in loss of consciousness, or fracture, increases your risk of dementia,” Dr Withall said.

“And these are the kind of injuries that can be sustained by people in a sporting context or serious motor vehicle accident. 

“This does not mean that a person with a head injury will develop dementia, but it will increase their susceptibility.

“However, there is insufficient research to know the long term effects of milder head injury, such as concussion.

“What is important to point out is that the benefit of playing sport for cardiovascular health and the social benefits it brings absolutely outweighs the risks with respect to developing dementia. We have to remember that the overall prevalence of sports people developing dementia is very small. 

“Early findings from the Australian INSPIRED Study of people who have young onset dementia show that 27.3 per cent of the group had suffered at least a mild traumatic brain injury (resulting in a loss of consciousness or fracture), versus 5.7 per cent in an aged-matched sample from the general Australian population. Of these, 41.7 per cent were due to a sports injury and 37.5 per cent were due to a motor vehicle accident.

“There is also a ‘dose-response relationship’, which means that more head knocks lead to an increased risk of developing dementia.

“These results, though interesting, are preliminary and really indicate the need for more research to be done in this important area.

“While we wait for more evidence on this, we would recommend that all football codes strictly enforce their concussion and head injury rules to minimise the risk for their players.”

Graeme Samuel AC, Alzheimer’s Australia National President said: “Football is a large part of the Australian culture and we encourage everyone to continue this tradition. However, we need to ensure the players are aware of the precautions that need to be taken.

“The AFL and NRL have adopted a progressive and proactive stance relating to head injury in the past few years, in order to minimise the risk to players. It is important now, that all the clubs enforce the rules that they have in place” Mr Samuel said.