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Brain Injury and Dementia: Are they Connected?

nurse looking through photo album with brain injury patient with dementia

Is there a connection between brain injury and dementia? Are there any ways to reduce a person’s likelihood of developing dementia after brain injury?

To answer these questions, we’re looking at the latest research on brain injury and dementia. We’ll also show you some treatments that can help minimize your chances of getting dementia, or at least slow the progression of it.

Click on the following links to jump ahead to certain sections:

Research on Brain Injury and Dementia

Research seems to indicate that brain injury and dementia are somehow linked, though the exact reason behind it remains unclear. While researchers may be unclear on why brain injury can lead to dementia, there are some facts we do know.

The following are the major conclusions of several studies on brain injury and dementia:

  • The more severe the brain injury, the higher the risk of dementia. One major study in Denmark found that a single moderate TBI increased a person’s chances of developing dementia by 24 percent, and the chances increased to 35 percent after a severe TBI. Other studies have made similar findings.
  • Repeated mild traumatic brain injury increases your chances of developing dementia. Researchers discovered this fact in the 1920s when professional boxers started showing signs of mental decline after a few years in the ring. Back then it was called dementia pugilistica or “punch drunk” syndrome. Nowadays it’s referred to as CTE.
  • A single mild traumatic brain injury rarely leads to dementia. Most of the research out there seems to show that a single concussion or mild brain injury will not greatly increase the risk of dementia. However, the study in Denmark did find a connection.
  • Traumatic brain injury might trigger Alzheimer’s by releasing a protein. A protein that is found in Alzheimer’s patients, called beta-amyloid, is also released after a severe TBI, which may explain why there’s a connection between brain injury and dementia.

Additionally, significant overlap exists in the events present in the brain following a TBI and those involved in the progression of Alzheimer’s including inflammation and disruption to the blood-brain barrier.

While these facts can look alarming, please remember that most patients who experience a brain injury, even a severe one, will not develop dementia or Alzheimer’s. TBI only increases your risk of dementia; it doesn’t guarantee it.

Diagnosing Dementia After TBI

doctor speaking to elderly patient about brain injury and dementia

Many of the symptoms of dementia, such as memory and concentration problems, are also common traumatic brain injury symptoms.

Therefore, even if you display some dementia signs, that doesn’t mean you have the disease. If you are concerned, talk to your doctor, who can refer you to a specialist. A specialist can perform a variety of tests to determine whether you have dementia, such as:

  • Cognitive and neuropsychological tests. These tests measure your memory, problem-solving, language skills, and other abilities related to cognitive functioning.
  • Lab tests. Doctors might also check the levels of hormones, chemicals, and vitamins in your blood to rule out any other causes of your symptoms.
  • Psychiatric evaluations. This test will help doctors determine whether depression or other psychiatric problems may be contributing to your symptoms.

These tests can enable doctors to identify dementia after brain injury and find effective treatments.

How to Reduce Your Risk of Dementia After Brain Injury

There is currently no perfect method to prevent dementia, since most of it depends on your genes.

However, according to the World Health Organization there are steps you can take that help reduce your risk of dementia. In fact, many of the activities that keep a brain injury from getting worse will also help lower your chances of developing dementia.

The following are the four main ways to reduce dementia risk, according to experts:

1. Stay Physically Active

elderly man with brain injury and dementia exercising

Physical exercise isn’t just good for your body; it’s also good for your brain!

Low-impact exercise, such as aerobic activity, increases blood flow to your brain. This lets it get more nutrients, which promotes better brain function. It also improves mood and sleep.

But best of all, aerobic activity boosts the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain in charge of memory! This has huge implications for brain injury patients since it could prevent memory decline and potentially help prevent dementia.

2. Challenge Your Brain

person doing crossword puzzle and giving a thumbs-up.

The more your brain is stimulated, the more neural connections it forms. And the more neural connections your brain has, the stronger its cognitive skills become.

Therefore, if you want to minimize cognitive decline, the best thing you can do is to keep your brain active. Some ways to challenge your brain include:

  • Learn a new game like chess or Sudoku
  • Try music therapy or learn a musical instrument
  • Read at least one novel a month
  • Do a crossword puzzle

Again, the more you keep your brain active, the less likely it is to decay.

3. Stay Socially Active

group of seniors laughing and socializing, which can help prevent dementia after brain injury

Prolonged social isolation increases a person’s risk of dementia, even if they’ve never had a brain injury. However, for people with a TBI, the risk is even higher.

It’s hard to overcome social isolation though. It seems the longer it lasts, the tighter its grip on you becomes until the very idea of going out sounds terrifying. Still, it’s crucial to find some activity that gets you in contact with others. Research shows that the most socially active people have the best cognitive function and the lowest risk of dementia.

But how do you socialize when you are isolated? Here are some suggestions:

  • Volunteer at your favorite charity
  • Try some recreational therapy activities
  • If you like art, join a painting class, or try art therapy
  • If you are religious, see if your place of worship has any groups you can join.
  • Go to a museum with a family member or friend.
  • Join an adaptive sports league

These are just a few ideas to get you started. As long as you are doing an activity that engages you and gets you out of the house, you will stimulate your brain and help prevent cognitive decline.

4. Keep a Healthy Brain Diet

assortment of healthy foods that promote brain function

Foods that promote brain function can also reduce your risk of dementia, according to several studies. The foods that make a good brain injury diet are rich in omega-3 and antioxidants. In particular, scientists recommend following the popular MIND diet, which includes foods such as:

  • Dark, leafy greens such as kale and spinach at least 6 servings per week
  • Fatty fish like salmon and trout one meal per week
  • Unsalted nuts at least 5 servings per week
  • Berries, especially blueberries, twice per week
  • Whole grains 3 times per week
  • Beans 3 times per week
  • Olive oil

In addition, it’s important to avoid or at least limit red meat, dairy, sweets, and fried foods, as these can increase inflammation in the brain.

The MIND diet supports healthy cognitive function and allows the brain to heal faster from its injuries. Therefore, to reduce your risk of dementia after brain injury, try to follow it as closely as you can.

How to Help a Loved One with Dementia and Brain Injury

If your loved one has been diagnosed with dementia following their brain injury, you probably have a lot of questions regarding how you can help. The following are a few tips to help improve your interactions:

  • Ask simple questions. Make sure you only ask one question at a time, and preferably ones with yes or no answers. In addition, it can help to refrain from giving them too many options. For example, instead of asking what they would like to eat, give them two or three options only.
  • Speak slowly and clearly. Use simple words and sentences, and speak in a reassuring tone. If they don’t understand the first time, repeat your message patiently. Also, be sure to use the names of people and places instead of pronouns.
  • Break down activities into steps. This can help make tasks more manageable. If your loved one struggles to remember how to do an activity, gently remind them of each step they need to take or write down the steps on an easy-to-find place, such as a whiteboard.
  • Distract and redirect. If the person becomes upset or agitated, try changing the subject or moving them to a new environment. For example, you might ask them for help with something or suggest going for a walk.

These are just a few simple ways to help make things a little easier for dementia patients. For more suggestions, talk to your family doctor or a specialist.

Brain Injury and Dementia: Conclusion

While there appears to be a link between brain injury and dementia, this should not cause you to stress about the future. The likelihood of developing dementia is still relatively low, even for those who have suffered a severe TBI in the past. All you can do is work on what you can change right now.

To reduce your risk of dementia after brain injury, it is crucial to stay physically and mentally active, eat healthily, and socialize with others. This will all keep your body and mind in shape, and improve your quality of life.

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