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Decades After Traumatic Brain Injuries, Cognitive Decline Shows Its Face: Insights from Twin Studies
Published:
September 8, 2023
Updated:
September 8, 2023

Decades After Traumatic Brain Injuries, Cognitive Decline Shows Its Face: Insights from Twin Studies

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Recent studies shed light on a growing concern: even after recovering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI), individuals might experience cognitive decline decades later. This discovery underscores the importance of understanding TBIs and the long-term impacts they can have on our brain health.

Young Girl with Concussion

A groundbreaking study, centered on male twins, delved into the relationship between early-life TBIs and late-life cognitive functioning. The research revealed that twins who suffered from TBIs showcased significantly lower cognitive scores at the age of 70 compared to their counterparts who hadn't experienced such injuries. More intriguingly, the cognitive decline rate was steeper among those who had endured TBIs.

Dr. Marianne Chanti-Ketterl, a key figure in this research and a gerontologist at Duke University Medical Center, highlighted the findings as both "concerning and promising." She expressed surprise at the evident cognitive decline, which previous studies had missed.

However, she also noted the silver lining, emphasizing that early interventions might aid in slowing cognitive deterioration and possibly delaying the onset of dementia.

Studying twins, especially identical ones, provides a unique perspective. These pairs share genes and, often, similar early-life experiences. Such a setting enables researchers to examine the true impact of TBIs, eliminating genetic and environmental variables that could skew the results. From the data collected on nearly 7,200 white, male World War II veterans who were twins, those with a history of concussion had sustained their brain injuries about 34 years earlier on average.

Young Male getting Concussion Checked by Doctor

Delving deeper into the data, participants who had experienced concussions exhibited noticeably lower test scores around the age of 70. This difference was even more pronounced if the injured individual had lost consciousness due to the concussion or was over 24 at the time of the injury.

Furthermore, the twin who had been injured had a test score that was 0.59 points lower at age 70 compared to the uninjured twin. Notably, the rate of cognitive decline in the injured twin was faster by 0.05 points per year.

Highlighting the importance of the findings, Dr. Chanti-Ketterl remarked:

“Many individuals experience mild traumatic brain injuries and opt against seeking medical help, believing it won't affect their future. Our research indicates otherwise.”

This knowledge may empower individuals to take proactive steps, like staying socially engaged, being physically active, and addressing hearing loss.

However, there's a pressing need for more comprehensive research. For instance, the study doesn't provide clarity on the consequences of concussions sustained during childhood or the implications for parents considering contact sports for their children. Chanti-Ketterl emphasized the importance of expanding the research scope to younger age groups to gauge the long-term effects of early-life concussions.

Dr. Holly Elser, a resident physician in neurology at the University of Pennsylvania, championed the study's use of historical data, which allowed for a prolonged follow-up period. Reflecting on the insights the study offers about the long-term impacts of concussions, Elser suggested emphasizing preventive measures like wearing helmets or seat belts and utilizing assistive devices to prevent falls in older adults.

In conclusion, TBIs, even if they occurred decades ago, have the potential to influence cognitive function in the later stages of life. Though the relationships are subtle, they underscore the necessity for increased awareness and understanding of TBIs. It's crucial that individuals take appropriate preventive measures and remain vigilant about potential late-life cognitive implications, regardless of how "minor" a concussion may have seemed at the time.

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