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Does Head Injury Increase Risk of Alzheimer's Disease?

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Risk of Alzheimer's disease or of other forms of dementia was about twice as high in those with moderate head injury, and about four times as high in those with severe head injury. Mild head injury did not significantly increase risk.

"Whether prevention or better treatment of head injury could influence later development of Alzheimer's disease is an interesting question," Myron F. Weiner, MD, tells WebMD. He is a professor and vice chairman for clinical services in psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and reviewed the study for WebMD.

While professional boxers tend to get "punch-drunk," developing memory problems related to repeated blows to the head, this study showed that even a single moderate or severe head injury increased risk of Alzheimer's disease up to 40 to 50 years later.

"From a public health point of view, such findings add weight to the need to prevent head injury," Anthony Jorm, PhD, Dsc, tells WebMD. Countries such as Australia have laws restricting boxing and requiring the use of seat belts in cars, and helmets on motorbikes and bikes.

"These measures are justified by the suffering and disability that head injury can produce short term, but now we must add in the possibility of dementia down the track," says Jorm, professor and deputy director of the Centre for Mental Health Research at Australian National University in Canberra.

"If you can avoid head injury, do it!" study co-author James R. Burke, MD, PhD, tells WebMD. "I wouldn't stop my child from playing competitive sports, but I would encourage them not to box."

"We're starting to get a handle on factors that could be important in developing Alzheimer's disease," says Burke, an assistant professor of neurology at Duke University Medical Center.

Once genetic and other risk factors are defined, the goal will be to predict who is likely to get the disease, and to try to prevent it before they get even mild, early symptoms. Recent research suggests that some relatively safe medications, including anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen, might prevent Alzheimer's disease, but more rigorous studies are needed.

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