We Care

MVCN Magazine by and for Caregivers

Fall 2015

Study shows TBI or blast injury can increase risk of Alzheimer’s

By Jessica Montgomery

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan designated November as National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.  Twenty-one years later, President Reagan died at age 93 after having suffered from the disease himself for over a decade.

Alzheimer’s awareness has certainly increased since 1983, but unfortunately, a cure has not yet been found, and the cause of the disease is still poorly understood.  About 70% of the risk is believed to be genetic, with many genes usually involved.  But did you know that head injuries, like those seen in veterans exposed to blasts and repeated traumatic brain injuries, can dramatically increase the risk of Alzheimer’s?  A study published in May in Brain; A Journal of Neurology notes that veterans show progressive damage to the brain’s wiring years after coming home from war.

“Generally as we age, the connections (in the brain) deteriorate.  But with those people with blast exposure, it appears as though it’s happening faster,” said lead author Benjamin Trotter, a biomedical engineer with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The findings expand on VA research published last year that confirmed a lack of communication between regions of the brain according to scans of troops who had been within 30 feet of an explosion.

Regina McGlinchey, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the VA’s Translational Research Center for TBI and Stress Disorders notes that “what we generally see in older people in terms of declines in executive function, memory, and planning would be happening at an earlier age.”

Recent figures from the Alzheimer’s Association estimate that of the 5.3 million Americans with Alzheimer’s, 5.1 million are over age 65, leaving 200,000 under age 65.  Alzheimer’s– the 6th leading cause of death in America– is the only disease in the top 10 causes of death that cannot be clinically prevented, cured or slowed.

Normal aging has minor effects on short-term memory, causing individuals to occasionally forget things, to misplace items or not to remember exact details.  More serious problems, such as memory loss that disrupts daily life, challenges in problem solving, difficulty completing familiar tasks, confusion about time or place, or other changes outside the range of normal aging could mean that it’s time to talk to the doctor to be screened. Alzheimer’s is diagnosed after reviewing medical and family history, behavioral observations, and advanced medical imaging of the brain such as CT, MRI, PET or SPECT.

Caregivers of veterans with a history of traumatic brain injuries should consider learning about Alzheimer’s disease so that they can be educated, know what to watch for and be prepared to report changes or worsening symptoms to health care providers.

For more information:


Alzheimer’s Association- www.alz.org


VA Caregiver Program- Alzheimer’s info sheet- http://www.caregiver.va.gov/pdfs/FamilyCaregiversGuideTo_Alzheimers.pdf

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