Is there a link between getting concussions and developing Alzheimer’s?

A concussion is traumatic brain injury that changes the way your brain functions. When the skull is jolted or impacted by a hard surface, the brain shifts, slamming against the skull, causing damage and swelling to the brain. If treated correctly, the brain will heal. If not, results can be deadly.

The occurrence and affects of concussions have risen in media reporting, most recently with NFL players experiencing a high rate of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

In an NFL-authorized study, former players ages 30-49 had memory-related diseases 19 times higher than the rate in the national population, and also found that 6.1 percent of former NFL players 50 and over had been diagnosed with some form of dementia, a rate five times higher than the national average of 1.2 percent.

Mayo Clinic researchers suggest that a serious blow to the head which results in a concussion could lead to a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease, even 50 years later. The study results, in which individuals over 70 participated, found that those with memory problems and a history of concussions had more build-up of Alzheimer’s disease-associated plaques (amyloid) in the brain than those who also had concussions, but not memory impairments.

Among study participants who had suffered a concussion severe enough to cause loss of memory or consciousness and who also showed signs of cognitive decline, levels of amyloid plaques were 18 percent higher than among people who had never suffered a concussion.

The researchers noted that the study suggests that head trauma is related to Alzheimer’s-type dementia and it is a risk factor. However, the results of the study don’t mean that a person with head trauma is automatically going to develop the disease.

In addition to Alzheimer’s, another neurodegenerative disease called dementia pugilistica also affects athletes who suffer concussive blows to the head. Repetitive concussions are common to quarterbacks, wide receivers, boxers, hockey and soccer forwards and hockey defense men. Occasionally a catcher defending home plate will experience a concussion. Signs and symptoms of DP develop progressively over a long period of time, sometimes decades, with the average time of onset being about 12-16 years after the start of their respective sport.

Questions about Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia disorder? Contact Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, Director of Services at Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area, (225) 334-7494.