Concussions May Play a Role in Alzheimer’s

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
March 31, 2023
Concussions May Play a Role in Alzheimer’s

There may be a link between traumatic brain injury, such as a concussion, and Alzheimer’s disease, especially if you have a genetic risk for the disease. 

While it’s true having a family history of Alzheimer’s disease does raise your risk for this form of dementia, it doesn’t mean you are doomed to develop the memory-robbing disease. It’s likely that an interplay of environmental factors and specific genes determine if and when Alzheimer’s develops — so it makes sense to control lifestyle factors that may help keep your brain healthy.

For example, studies have found regular exercise can play a role in fending off cognitive decline, and eating a diet rich in vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, may help, too, according to the National Institute on Aging.

Scientists have also found something else that might prevent or delay Alzheimer’s, especially in people with a genetic risk for the disease — avoiding concussions.


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Concussion and Alzheimer's

Moderate-to-severe traumatic brain injury is one of the strongest environmental risk factors for developing neurodegenerative diseases such as late-onset Alzheimer's disease. To see if mild traumatic brain injury, a concussion, also increases this risk, Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) researchers studied160 Iraq and Afghanistan war vets.

Some of the former soldiers had one or more concussions, while others never had this type of non-life threatening brain injury. When the BUSM research team imaged the volunteers’ brains with MRIs, they discovered some significant differences. Even though the young men had an average age of only 32, those who experienced concussions had a measurable thinning in several areas of their cerebral cortex (the outer layer of the brain’s neural tissue) — changes potentially linked to the development of Alzheimer’s.

"We found that having a concussion was associated with lower cortical thickness in brain regions that are the first to be affected in Alzheimer's disease," said Jasmeet Hayes, PhD, then an assistant professor of psychiatry at BUSM and research psychologist at the National Center for PTSD.

Although the study is relatively small and more research is needed, Hayes says the findings suggest brain atrophy caused by concussions may accelerate the memory loss of Alzheimer’s disease, especially combined with genetic factors.

“These findings show promise for detecting the influence of concussion on neurodegeneration early in one’s lifetime,” said Hayes. “Thus, it is important to document the occurrence and subsequent symptoms of a concussion, even if the person reports only having their ‘bell rung’ and is able to shake it off fairly quickly, given that when combined with factors such as genetics, the concussion may produce negative long-term health consequences."

Future research

The researchers hope future studies will zero in on how concussion-related brain changes may accelerate the onset of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and potentially lead to new ways to slow or prevent dementia.

“Treatments may then one day be developed to target those mechanisms and delay the onset of neurodegenerative pathology,” Hayes explained.

What is a concussion?

A concussion, marked by a short loss of normal brain function, occurs from a blow to the head during an accident, such as playing a sport that involves impact or from falling and hitting your head. Symptoms can range from a headache or neck pain to nausea, dizziness, ringing in your ears, or feeling extra tired.

Although concussions aren’t life-threatening, several studies suggest repeated concussions can be particularly dangerous to your brain, according to the National Institutes of Health. In fact, NFL football players who have suffered repeated concussions are now known to be at high risk for dementia, including Alzheimer’s.

Of course, it’s not always possible in life to avoid all bumps to the head, but you can take precautions to lower your risk for a concussion. For example, always wear your seatbelt in cars and wear protective gear for contact sports and when riding a bike.


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March 31, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA