UW links traumatic brain injury to dementia

VIDEO: New study from UW professor discovers link between traumatic brain injuries and dementia

SEATTLE — A groundbreaking new study led by a University of Washington professor found the risk of dementia -- including Alzheimer's -- is significantly higher for people who have suffered a traumatic brain injury than for those who have not.

Even people not into extreme or contact sports are at risk for traumatic brain injury, because the most common causes of TBI are falls and motor vehicle accidents, according to the study’s lead author.

“Anyone can fall, anyone can get into a car accident,” Dr. Jesse Fann told KIRO 7 on Wednesday.

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“Anyone can get hit by a car when they’re walking or driving.”

Fann is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington Medical School.

He and Jakob Christensen of Aarhus University in Denmark studied of 2.8 million Danish patients over two years in the largest study to ever examine a possible link between traumatic brain injuries -- and dementia, such as Alzheimers, in people over the age of 50.

“The higher the number of brain injuries a person had, the higher the risk of dementia,” Fann said.

“Also, the more severe the brain injury, the higher the risk.”

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According to the study results, the overall risk of dementia in people with a history of TBI was 24 percent higher than those without. A severe brain injury increased the risk by 35 percent; a mild concussion by 17 percent.

Fann told KIRO 7, traumatic brain injury does not automatically lead to dementia, however “the study does illustrate the importance of trying to prevent traumatic brain injuries.”

Preventing football-related TBIs is why Seattle-based Vicis developed a new helmet designed to absorb more impact, further protecting the brain. Company CEO Dave Marver explained the design to KIRO 7 in 2015.

“This is like we’re dealing with an egg,” Marver said. “Today’s helmets protect the egg shell, keep it from cracking.  But we also want to protect the egg yoke from sloshing around, like the brain.”

Even years before Fann's study, the Seattle-area was on the cutting edge of brain safety because of Zack Lystedt, who survived a traumatic brain injury playing youth football 12 years ago.

His story inspired a Washington state law -- soon adopted nationwide --- demanding athletes, parents and coaches be educated about the dangers of concussions each year. If an athlete is suspected of having a concussion, he or she must be removed from the game or practice. Click here to read more.

“I think the Lystedt Law is absolutely transformative and very valuable,” Fann said.

The study author has active kids of his own who live with strict rules when it comes to brain safety.

“I absolutely make sure my kids wear a seat belt when they’re in the car. I absolutely insist that they wear a helmet when they ride their bikes. I absolutely insist that when they’re downhill skiing that they wear a helmet,” Fann said.

As for football?

“We play a lot of flag football. We don’t play tackle football,” said Fann.

Click here to read more on the study from the University of Washington.