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Mounting Evidence Linking Brain Injuries to Dementia Later in Life

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Two new studies — one in veterans and the other in retired football players — add to the mounting evidence linking brain injuries to an increased the risk of dementia later in life.

In a study of retired National Football League players, 35 percent had signs of dementia, which compares to a 13 percent Alzheimer’s rate in the general population.

The football player study is a follow-up of earlier research that included a survey of nearly 4,000 retired NFL players in 2001. In 2008, new surveys were sent to the 905 players who were over 50 years old.

Of those who responded to the second survey, 513 had wives who could complete a section of questions addressing the players’ memory and cognition. “We were surprised that 35 percent of [the players] appeared to have significant cognitive problems,” said the new study’s lead researcher, Dr. Christopher Randolph of Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago.

For the veterans study, researchers reviewed the medical records of 281,540 military personnel age 55 and older who received care at Veterans Administration hospitals from 1997 to 2000 and who had at least one follow-up visit from 2001 to 2007. None of the veterans in the study were diagnosed with dementia at the beginning of the seven year study.

Almost 5,000 of the veterans had been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Their risk of developing dementia by the end of the study was 15.3 percent. That’s compared to 6.8 percent of those with no TBI diagnosis.

The study results were scary news for Ryan Lamke, 26, a medically retired Marine who lives in suburban Washington, D.C. Lamke suffered TBIs from multiple blast exposures when he served in Iraq in 2005.

“I’m diagnosed as a moderate [TBI], but it feels anything but mild,” said Lamke, who relies on electronic calendars and other gadgets to keep his life organized.

Now a university student, Lamke feels the results of his TBI keenly every time he goes to study. “I have to read for twice as long as my classmates,” he said. “I’ve not found a doctor so far who can give me a true understanding of what’s going to happen 20 or 30 years down the road.”

Scientists believe that each hit to the head, even concussions, causes stretching of the brain’s communication cables, known as axons. When the axons stretch, their inner structure is damaged. Studies have shown that damaged axons can spew out proteins that lead to plaques and tangles in the brain which are known to cause dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The new research in veterans should give us all pause, said Dr. Douglas Smith, a professor of neurosurgery and director of the Penn Center for Brain Injury and Repair.

We’ve all heard about Agent Orange,” he said. "That may pale in comparison to this. We don’t know how many soldiers have been exposed to blasts or what level of brain injury can trigger long term effects. We have to be concerned for years to come about the welfare of our soldiers. They may come home safely, but may not be home safe. This is the injury that keeps on taking.”

Please support your local brain injury support groups such as Brain Injury Association of Virginia.