Concussions and Dementia

Updated: Jan 11, 2019



Headaches. Confusion. Nausea. Lack of coordination. All these symptoms are linked to concussions. However, did you know that dementia could also occur due to a concussion? A recent study at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) at Weill Institute for Neurosciences and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Health Care System shows that even if a patient did not lose consciousness, dementia is a complication which can follow a concussion.


The study tracked one-third of a million veterans and found that the chances of developing dementia was double if they suffered from a concussion. Researchers claim, “After adjusting for age, sex, race, education and other health conditions, they found the concussion without loss of consciousness led to 2.36 times the risk for dementia. These risks were slightly elevated for those in the loss-of-consciousness bracket  (2.51) and were nearly four times higher (3.77) for those with the more serious moderate-to-severe traumatic brain injury”. The participants were chosen from two groups of people. The first group was composed of all-era veterans whose traumatic brain injuries(including concussions and mild traumatic brain injuries) could have occurred in combat or civilian life. The second group included veterans whose head injuries mostly occurred in war. One of the authors, Deborah Barnes, PhD, MPH, professor in the UCSF departments of psychiatry and epidemiology and biostatistics, states, "The findings in both groups were similar, indicating that concussions occurring in combat areas were as likely to be linked to dementia as those concussions affecting the general population”. The chances of developing dementia are equal for those who suffer from brain injury in war, and those who suffer from concussions in civilian life.


More research is needed to discover the exact reason behind why concussions increase the chances of developing dementia, yet there are a couple theories which have been developed from this study. Senior author and principal investigator Kristine Yaffe, MD, professor in the UCSF departments of neurology, psychiatry, and epidemiology and biostatistics says about her study, “There’s something about trauma that may hasten the development of neurodegenerative conditions. One theory is that brain injury induces or accelerates the accumulation of abnormal proteins that lead to neuronal death associated with conditions like Alzheimer’s… It’s also possible that trauma leaves the brain more vulnerable to other injuries or aging processes… but we need more work in this area”.

According to Barnes, the results of this study “show that more needs to be done to reduce the likelihood of traumatic brain injuries. In older adults, exercise and multifactorial interventions may limit the risks of falls which are the leading cause of head injury”. Keeping a healthy lifestyle and being aware of your surroundings reduce your risk of developing a concussion.  If you do experience a concussion, be sure to seek medical attention immediately, and give yourself plenty of time to heal. Also, avoid getting concussions repeatedly. Although this study does not focus on this aspect, Barnes notes that “there is growing evidence that repeated concussions appear to have a cumulative effect”. You can’t erase an injury that already occurred, however, you can protect yourself from further ones. Wearing a helmet while riding a bike, and wearing your seatbelt, are just some of the things you can do to keep yourself safe.

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