There’s now even more evidence that concussions and mild traumatic brain injuries should be taken seriously.
A new study in the journal Neurology finds that even mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) — characterized by loss of consciousness for 30 minutes or less — can increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease by 56 percent. Parkinson’s is an incurable and degenerative neurological disorder that causes tremors, stiffness in limbs and walking, and balance issues and impacts.
Using Veterans Health Administration (VHA) electronic medical records from 2002 to 2014, the researchers identified 325,870 vets ages 18 and older who had a TBI and age-matched the group to a random sample of veterans who did not have a TBI or any signs of the disease. The results showed that those with moderate to severe TBI have an 83 percent increased risk of Parkinson's disease; those with mild TBI have a 56 percent risk.
“We were not surprised that there was an association with TBI and Parkinson’s because there have been other studies that have shown this,” says Kristine Yaffe, M.D., the principal investigator of the study and a professor at University of California, San Francisco. “We were surprised that the mild TBI carried almost as much risk as moderate to severe.”
Yaffe said the study is part of an ongoing effort by the Department of Defense and the VA to understand more about the impact of blast injuries from vets who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There were limitations of the study, noted Yaffe. “For the Afghanistan/Iraq vets we had pretty good data for the TBI elements," she said, "but for some of the older folks we can’t tell when the TBI happened. Some of this happened while in the military, some of this didn’t.”
How can medical professionals and veterans use this new information?
According to Yaffe, there are two peak life stages for TBI: The first is during teenage years, when brain injuries are mostly attributed to sports and motor vehicle accidents; the second is later in life, when people fall.
“For the military and for younger people, you have to wear helmets and maybe reevaluate some of our sports programs,” Yaffe says. “The military is doing a lot to try to prevent blast injury and, if someone has one, to try and intervene. For older folks, falls assessment and driving assessment programs are really important.”
Lastly, if you do have a head trauma — even where you don't lose consciousness but are altered — seek medical attention.
“As doctors, we need to realize if someone has a TBI we need to follow them closely and maybe assess them frequently for cognitive issues [and disorders like] Parkinson’s.”