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Concussions double veterans' risk for Alzheimer's, study says

Posted Jul 29 2011 12:00am
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Los Angeles Times

For veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with head injuries, the wounds of war may eventually include dementia. In a study reported at a July 18 meeting in Paris of the Alzheimer's Assn., researchers found that older veterans who had suffered concussions were more than twice as likely as other veterans to develop Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.

Doctors have suspected for many years that a blow to the head could set the stage for dementia. But the new study — involving more than 281,000 veterans 55 and over — was one of the largest to ever look at the long-term effects on a group that suffers more than its share of head injuries.

The researchers looked at veterans who had visited a doctor at least once between 1997 and 2000 and had a follow-up visit between 2001 and 2007. The study found that almost 16% of veterans with a history of head trauma had developed dementia during that time. By comparison, only 7% of those who hadn't suffered a head injury were diagnosed with dementia.

With the widespread reliance by insurgents on roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been especially rife with head injuries, making the latest study findings especially relevant and disconcerting. Army doctors estimate that 15% to 25% of soldiers deployed to these countries end up with "mild traumatic brain injury," caused by direct blows to the head and/or exposures to blasts. For those seriously wounded in combat, the list of injuries generally includes head trauma. A 2006 study found that two-thirds of soldiers sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq had brain injuries.

Head injuries can leave long-lasting psychological wounds, too. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008 found that a serious head injury quadrupled the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder. Of 2,500 infantry soldiers studied who had just finished serving a year in Iraq, 5% had received a blow to the head that was severe enough to knock them out. More than 40% of these soldiers showed the classic signs of PTSD. For those who weren't injured, the rate of PTSD was less than 10%.

PTSD can be overcome with counseling, medication and time. For now, though, there is no real treatment for Alzheimer's. Unless that changes, many veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan will be facing a new battle in 30 to 40 years.
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