Can traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) increase your dementia risk? Emerging scientific evidence indicates that the answer is a likely yes.
This finding spells dire news for participants in contact sports, many of whom have endured repeated concussions and blows. That’s why a family of former athletes decided to launch the dementia charity “Head for Change.”
The Problem of Traumatic Brain Injuries in Sports
Your brain runs every other part of your body, and when something goes wrong with it due to contact injury, it can create no end of misery. A single TBI can cause ongoing seizures and migraines, sleep disorders, neurodegenerative conditions, neuroendocrine dysregulation and behavioral disorders.
While no one is immune from such injuries — domestic violence and automobile accidents are other common causes — athletes bear an inordinate risk. Statistics show that male athletes in particular often suffer head injuries during the first or final 15 minutes of play when contact and roughness peak. Wearing a helmet doesn’t help prevent all harm — a field hockey stick to the head can cause brain damage. In general, though, the more contact a sport entails, the more elevated the danger.
Those who play sports like football and rugby run the greatest risks. Recent evidence suggests that athletes who engage in such activities from young ages may suffer an earlier onset of dementia. Tragically, debate still rages about how much information governing bodies should share with young athletes regarding risks like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, causing many to take the field when they might otherwise hesitate.
The long-term effects of a TBI can change a person’s entire life trajectory. Some athletes find themselves stricken with early-onset dementia in their 40s or 50s, causing considerable hardship for their partners and families. Their spouses may find themselves caring for an aging parent, their children and the person who was supposed to help them manage it all, leading to overwhelm.
Those without such a support system or who were their family’s primary breadwinner can incur ongoing economic hardship, particularly in the United States, where medical bills bankrupt scores of people each year and leave others destitute. Some estimates state that 50% of all homeless individuals have TBIs, often occurring well before facing harsh life on the streets.
How “Head for Change” Plans to Help
“Head for Change” arose from several football families sharing a joint mission. They hope to, first of all, provide much-needed support for injured players and their families. They also aim to advance progress on the research and development front.
On the first front, Heads for Change hopes to bring families together in “huddles” to offer mutual understanding and support. Dealing with the reality of dementia, especially when it strikes at a young age, presents various challenges that few outsiders can understand.
The group also wants to influence governing bodies to work with them. They have several competing factions they must overcome or sway in this endeavor. To this aim, Dr. Judith Gates, one of the group’s founding members, established The Repercussion Group. This consortium of independent scientists hopes to assert an alternative conception of head injury than that taken by the conservative Concussion in Sport Group.
To influence public policy towards participation in such sports, the group hopes to amass more evidence of the link between TBIs and dementia. They face the overwhelming challenge of convincing young athletes anxious to get in the game that doing so might not serve their long-term interest. They hope that scientific proof, combined with the testimony of athletes now afflicted, will persuade some people to think twice.
“Head for Change” Offers Hope for Athletes
TBIs can cause severe and lifelong hardship. “Head for Change” offers hope for athletes struggling with the repercussions.