Having a serious concussion could be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer's decades later – though not everyone with head trauma will lose their memory, a new study suggests.

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Having a serious concussion could be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer's decades later – though not everyone with head trauma will lose their memory, a new study suggests.

A team from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minn., conducted brain scans on 448 older Minnesotans who had no signs of memory problems and 141 who did. Roughly 17% in both groups had had a brain injury earlier in life involving some loss of consciousness or memory.

Those who had no signs of memory problems had normal brain scans, regardless of their history of brain injury. Scans of those with memory problems and a history of brain injury were five times more likely to show a buildup of a brain protein long associated with Alzheimer's Disease, says study author Michelle Mielke, an associate professor of epidemiology and neurology at the Mayo Clinic.

The study, published online today in the journal Neurology, examined people in their 70s and 80s who reported having an earlier head trauma – in most cases 50 or 60 years earlier when they were adolescents. In those days, only the sickest people went to the doctor, so the head injuries were probably quite significant, Mielke says.

This is one of the first studies to take advantage of new technology, allowing brain scans to measure the buildup of a protein called beta amyloid, long associated with Alzheimer's. Most previous studies of the connection between Alzheimer's and head injury had looked only at cadavers.

"In my view, these findings are consistent with the idea that traumatic brain injury may lead to amyloid accumulation and Alzheimer's disease," says Richard Lipton, director of the Division of Cognitive Aging and Dementia and the Montefiore Headache Center at Albert Einstein College Of Medicine in New York City.

More research is needed, he cautions, to help explain how one causes the other. "To more fully explore the causal links, we need not just brilliant snapshots but the movies which track brain changes and cognitive changes over time."

For people worried about their own head injuries, the study provides some comfort, Lipton says. Both groups of older adults – impaired and normal – had the same rate of head injury. So, clearly, not every head injury leads to Alzheimer's disease, he says.

Most head injuries are accidents and therefore unavoidable, though helmets and seat belts can make a difference in some cases.

Lipton says he hopes that learning more about the connection between head injury and Alzheimer's will lead to interventions to protect injured brains from long-term damage. "Drugs that block the development of amyloid or increase its removal from the brain may help protect persons with traumatic brain injury from Alzheimer's disease, though that has not been demonstrated," he says.

Until then, the best strategy is to minimize known risk factors for Alzheimer's – high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol – by eating a healthy Mediterranean diet and exercising both mind and body, he says.

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