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Is there a Connection Between a Sports Concussion and Dementia?

Traumatic brain injury and dementia are terms linked by emerging research regarding sports injuries, especially in football players. This concern has grown in recent years as several former footballers, most notably some members of England’s 1966 world cup-winning group, have stated that they have dementia possibly linked to a sports concussion.

The risk does not exist solely in contact sports, though. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence reports emergency departments in England and Wales see as many as 1.4 million cases of head injuries a year and 50 percent are children 15 years old or younger. Groundbreaking research supports the hypothesis that concussions can have long-lasting effects, including increasing one’s risk of dementia.

The Connection Between a Sports Concussion and Dementia

A growing body of research suggests there may be a link between head injuries and dementia, a broad term for memory and cognitive decline induced by brain alterations. Since head injuries are somewhat preventable in sports, the implications that they may have long-lasting effects will raise awareness about why it’s essential to take steps to prevent them.

Awareness could also lead people who are not in sports to appreciate the risks of even mild head injuries, as well. The public needs to understand that a head injury or sports concussions can cause long-term harm and increase the risk of neurological disorders.

What Studies Show

Cerebrospinal fluid cushions the brain inside the skull. That’s why walking around doesn’t cause a brain injury. However, if something strikes the skull hard enough, the brain collides with that hard bone, producing swelling or bleeding. As a result, concussion symptoms such as short-term memory loss or confusion may occur.

A recent study funded by the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study and national institutes in the United States and published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, looked at 25 years worth of data regarding head injuries. These researchers found that mild head injuries could have long-term consequences. And, the more injuries of this type people sustain, the higher their risk of developing dementia. Just one head injury could increase the risk of dementia by 25 percent.

A 2018 study out of Denmark found In persons over the age of 50 who had suffered a head injury, the risk of dementia increased during a 10-year period. They also discovered that the risk of dementia rose with the number of head traumas sustained.

Other Causes of Dementia

Part of the confusion regarding sports concussions and dementia is that there are other factors at play. Not everyone who has dementia played football or had a head injury.

Dementia surfaces when there is damage to the brain from injury or disease. Many people associate dementia with Alzheimer’s disease, but that is just one form of this condition.

Certain unavoidable factors can contribute to dementia, such as genetics, gender (more common in women), and ethnicity. There are lifestyle choices that affect memory health, too. The Lancet published a report in 2020 that lists 12 other risk factors, including excess alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity, limited social contact, and obesity.

More research is necessary on how a sports concussion can increase a person’s risk of long-term injury. Building continuing dementia awareness and providing better protection for footballers may help some lower the risk of a condition that can devastate the victim and their families.

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