A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Do concussions cause early onset dementia?

Grandmother and granddaughter talking - Do concussions cause dementia?

Research has not shown that concussions alone for an average person result in early onset dementia.

Concussions are top of mind with more information available about the impacts of multiple concussions.

We are learning more about the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive degenerative disease found in people who had repeated concussions. This awareness has raised questions if concussions cause dementia later in life.

“More research is needed and is being done, but we really don’t know the longer term effects of concussions,” said Dr. Adam Atkins, sports medicine physician at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “We have seen some impacts with the NFL and the concussion movie, which has increased awareness and fear. But that’s only showing a select few who are impacted.”

Impact intensity does not correlate to concussion rates

Some concussions can happen at a low rate of impact or velocity. “There are multiple factors that contribute to the risk. Current research hasn’t provided hard data to support predicting what impacts will always result in a severe concussion,” Atkins said.

The leading cause of concussions varies with age. For children it’s competitive sports, for young adults it’s motor vehicle accidents and for older adults it’s falls.

Concussion symptoms include headaches, dizziness, neck pain, disruption of sleep pattern, confusion and changes in cognitive thinking processes. Symptoms are generally the same between kids and adults because the brain is responsible for the same functions. If you have had a head impact with any of these symptoms, see your provider as soon as possible.

If someone has a concussion and sustains a second head injury before symptoms resolve, they could develop a more serious issue called second impact syndrome. Second impact syndrome could involve coma, permanent brain damage or even death.

More research needed for long-term effects

While concussions at any age are a serious issue, research has not shown that concussions alone for an average person result in early onset dementia. People who develop dementia are a subset of the population and often have other neurological factors contributing to its cause. “Most people have had a concussion in their life, and we’re not seeing an epidemic of dementia,” Atkins said.

Recovery time varies greatly. For adults, symptoms typically last from a week to 10 days, but for children it could be up to four weeks. A child’s brain is still developing which results in longer recovery time.

Ten percent of people have prolonged recovery or post-concussion syndrome and take several months for symptoms to resolve. Children and adults who have past issues with mental health, memory, difficulty concentrating, neurologic or seizure disorders may have a more difficult time getting back to everyday function.

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