Study Finds Head Injuries Could Make Cognitive Decline Worse as Individuals Age

A study led by researchers from University College London has found that individuals who suffered head injuries when they were aged 50-something or below attained below-average scores on cognitive tests administered when they were age 70.

The study’s findings, which were reported in the “Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology,” found that while head injuries were not found to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease brain damage characteristics, they did make individuals more susceptible to symptoms of dementia.

Dr. Sarah-Naomi James, the lead author of the study, explained that the researchers found irrefutable proof that head injuries in mid or early life had a small but considerable effect on an individual’s thinking skills and brain health in the long term. This, she said, could be what sped up the normal aging process of the brain.

The study comprised of 502 participants; all participants were from the longest-running cohort study in the United Kingdom. The participants have been followed since they were born decades ago, the same week in 1946.

When they were aged 53, the participants were asked whether they had ever been knocked out in order to evaluate if they had ever experienced a significant head injury. From the sample, 21% admitted to being knocked out. Years late, when they were aged between 69 and 71, the participants took a series of cognitive tests and had MRI/PET brain scans taken.

When they were aged eight, all the participants had finalized standardized cognitive tests. Researchers compared their test results at age 70 and based their expected results off of their childhood cognition as well as other factors such as socioeconomic status and educational attainment.

They discovered that the participants aged 70 who had suffered a substantial head injury over a decade earlier performed marginally worse than was expected on cognitive tests that evaluated quick thinking and attention. Additionally, the researchers found that the participants had differences in the microstructural integrity of their brains and a 1% smaller brain volume. This discovery aligns with data from prior studies, which could explain the cognitive differences.

However, the researchers didn’t have access to data on the cause, severity or influence of these head injuries, which would have allowed them to see whether long-term effects may have been higher for some individuals.

UCL Dementia Research Center’s Professor Jonathan Schott, a joint senior author of the study, stated that the team’s findings added to evidence linking head injuries to brain health years later, adding that this was an additional reason to protect one’s brain from injury at all times.

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