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Risk factors for dementia extend beyond age, heredity and general health

​Dementia can be as confusing for the patient as it is for those close to them. Research has revealed a link between concussions and dementia, but is it something that you need to worry about? Even if you're not a football player, you'll want to understand the link between them.

"Unfortunately, no one is immune to a concussion injury," says Cole Smith, Director of Behavioral Health and Dementia Care Services for PruittHealth. "Falls, impacts, car accidents and any number of other incidents leave the head susceptible to trauma."

Defining parameters

Dementia is a general term used for a number of disorders that result in impaired cognitive function, behavioral changes and reduced intellectual capabilities.1 Alzheimer's disease is the most commonly diagnosed form.

A concussion is an injury resulting from a blow or jolt to the head or body that causes the brain to bounce or twist in the skull. A direct hit to the head isn't the only way to get a concussion. Any force that causes the brain to collide with the skull, such as a whiplash effect, can cause a concussion.

Though classified as a mild brain injury, there's nothing benign about it. Take it seriously and seek medical evaluation. The concussions cause chemical changes in the brain and may even stretch or damage areas of the brain.2

Unclear thinking

Due to the complex nature of head injuries, most medical professionals diagnose concussions based on the type of incident and the symptoms experienced. It's also possible for damage to occur at a cellular level that isn't visible on a CT scan.

Confusion is a key indicator. A patient may show memory loss surrounding the events, physical imbalance, ringing in the ears, headache and vomiting. There may also be difficulty concentrating and vision changes.2

A person may not realize they have a concussion which is why it's essential for coaches and family members to watch for signs and symptoms. Though symptoms often show up immediately, there can be a delay of a few hours up to a few days for symptoms to appear.3 Even if cleared after an initial evaluation, talk to your health care provider immediately if any new signs of concussion develop.

Understand the potential for long-term ramifications. Research shows the cumulative effects on the brain result in a higher risk of cognitive impairment with multiple concussive events. Traumatic brain injury is associated with a 60 percent higher risk of developing dementia.1

There's also a surprising depression link. If a patient has pre-existing depression, a concussion may exacerbate symptoms.

Reduce risk

You can't prevent all risk, but you can take steps to reduce it. Supervise play and use proper safety gear. Children are more prone to concussions because their heads are proportionally larger. During growth spurts, the body changes make children more susceptible to trips and falls.

Consider a home evaluation to address trip and fall hazards. Elderly may have balance issues due to limited range of motion, muscle weakness or medications. Minimize fall factor risk by working with a professional.

While concussions can increase the risk of developing dementia later in life, mental and physical activity in addition to professional treatment of mental health conditions may help mitigate the risk.1

"We encourage patients to talk to their health care professional about specific actions they can take," says Smith for PruittHealth.

You may not be able to avoid a head injury, but you can take steps to minimize fall risk and educate yourself about the hazards. Let your provider know if you experience even a low-level concussion. As research continues to investigate the mysteries the human brain, keep lines of communication open with your health care team.

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