SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - A new study from the University of California San Francisco indicates that even a mild concussion can double the risk of developing dementia.
The study looked at the medical records of 357,558 military veterans. But researchers say the findings can apply to anyone who've suffered an injury to the brain.
"Even mild injuries that aren't severe enough to cause a loss of consciousness can still increase your risk for developing dementia later on and that's kind of a scary thing for people to hear," said Deborah Barnes, UCSF professor of psychiatry and epidemiology. She's the lead author of the study. Barnes said if the brain injury is moderate to severe, such as a skull fracture, the risk increases four times.
"It doesn't surprise me. The military in general, before you even see combat, it's a very physical job," said Kimberly Flaherty, who served in the U.S Army from 1987 to 1990. She is now with the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Commission.
She hopes the study will help bring about early detection and improved healthcare for veterans.
"Veterans themselves may not identify with it. They should be checked. They should know the symptoms," said Flaherty.
Experts say early symptoms of dementia include: memory loss that impacts the ability to do daily tasks, confusion such as getting lost in familiar places and diffculty in speaking and writing.
"You can't change the past, but you do everything you can to reduce the risk of having another head injury," said Barnes.
Researchers say the findings are also a reminder to civilians about the importance of protecting the brain.
Wearing a helmet when biking and putting on seatbelts when riding in a car are preventive measures.
The study followed participants for an average of just over four years.
It looked at veterans whose injuries occurred in military or civilian life versus veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, for whom most brain injuries occurred in combat. The study for that the risk for dementia was the same in both groups.
Researchers say there's something about trauma that may hasten the development of neurodegenerative conditions.
Experts say there are ways to lower the risk for dementia.
"Staying physically active, staying mentally active. Staying socially active," said Barnes.
Researchers say the study's results show that more needs to be done to reduce the likelihood of traumatic brain injuries.
They say that falls, especially with older adults, are the leading cause of head injury.