Risk of dementia

There has been a great deal of media attention recently regarding the long-term consequences of sports-related head injuries, suggesting that concussion(s) might lead to dementia.

It is understandable that you might feel worried about the long-term effects of a concussion, especially when you are experiencing problems with your memory and concentration.

Despite the huge number of news articles on this topic, there is not much clear scientific evidence of a direct connection between (repeated) brain injuries and dementia. One large study published in 2015 found that head injury is not a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease at all.

There is some recent evidence from studies of professional sports players to suggest that they have a slightly greater chance of getting brain diseases of the sort that can lead to dementia (neurodegenerative diseases).

However, it is important to note that in these studies the actual size of the increased risk is small. In the FIELD study of former professional football (soccer) players, 1.7% (fewer than 2 in 100) got these sorts of diseases, compared with 0.5% (1 in 200) non-footballers of similar age and background. Studies like this can’t tell us whether mild head injuries, or heading the football, or any of a range of many other possible things are the cause of this small increase in brain disease.

It is also really important to note that professional footballers had much lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and death before age 70. And although there may be very slightly higher rates of brain diseases in professional sports people, the size of this increased risk is likely to be smaller than the beneficial effects of things like staying in education beyond age 16, not smoking, eating a healthy mediterranean-style diet, and taking regular exercise. Helpful and easy-to-read information about different things which influence your long-term chance of dementia can be found at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Statistics Hub.

A condition that is frequently mentioned in the media is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a pattern of changes in brain cells thought to be a neurodegenerative condition associated with head injury. However, to date it is unknown how common CTE is, what it is exactly and whether it is an illness at all.

That being said, it is very common for people with a mild head injury to experience difficulties remembering and concentrating. These are not signs of brain damage. Unlike dementia, where symptoms get worse over time, cognitive symptoms after a head injury usually get better over time.

Click here to find out more about memory and concentration difficulties

In this video, Professor Alan Carson talks about head injury and risk of dementia:

Further reading

“Here’s What We Don’t Know About Concussion And Sport” – A Buzzfeed article by Tom Chivers describing the current evidence on the relationship between head injuries from contact sports and dementia.

“Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Contact Sports: A Systematic Review of All Reported Pathological Cases” – A recent scientific review article on CTE, published in the scientific journal ‘Plos One’.