Concussions can age your brain, according to a study by the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology.
In fact, according to the announcement on the school’s website, even lesser head impacts “may speed up the brain’s natural aging process by causing signaling pathways in the brain to break down more quickly than they would in someone who has never suffered a brain injury or concussion,” the press release said.
The study, “Cognitive decline and aging: The role of concussive and subconcussive impacts,” appears in the July issue of journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews.
Researchers from the kinesiology school and the U-M Health System studied college students with and without a history of concussion and “found changes in gait, balance and in the brain’s electrical activity, specifically attention and impulse control,” according to Steven Broglio, assistant professor of kinesiology and director of the Neurotrauma Research Laboratory.
Outwardly, all of the study participants looked and acted the same.
Broglio, who is also affiliated with Michigan NeuroSport, said that the research lays out the hypothesis that concussions and head impacts accelerate the brain’s natural aging process.
“The last thing we want is for people to panic,” Broglio said in a statement. “Just because you’ve had a concussion does not mean your brain will age more quickly or you’ll get Alzheimer’s. We are only proposing how being hit in the head may lead to these other conditions, but we don’t know how it all goes together just yet.”
Factors such as lifestyle choices, smoking, alcohol consumption, physical exercise, family history and whether or not you “exercise” your brain can also impact the brain’s aging process, according to Broglio, and concussion may only be one small factor.
In the study, researchers asked the participants to perform certain tasks in front of a computer, and took images of their brains.
“The brains of the nonconcussed group showed a greater area of electrical activation than the participants with a history of brain injury,” according to UM’s press release. “The signaling pathways in our brains are analogous to a five-lane highway. On a new highway, traffic runs smoothly and quickly as all lanes are in top shape. However, during normal aging, the asphalt deteriorates and lanes might become bumpy or even unusable. Traffic slows.”
As people age, their brain’s pathways break down and fail to transmit information quickly.
“Concussive and other impacts to the head may result in a ‘pothole’ on the brain’s highway, causing varying degrees of damage and speeding the pathway’s natural deterioration,'” the press release said.
“What we don’t know is if you had a single concussion in high school, does that mean you will get dementia at age 50?” Broglio said.
“Clinically, we don’t see that. What we think is it will be a dose response,” he said. “”So, if you played soccer and sustained some head impacts and maybe one concussion, then you may have a little risk. If you went on and played in college and took more head balls and sustained two more concussions, you’re probably at a little bigger risk. Then if you play professionally for a few years, and take more hits to the head, you increase the risk even more. We believe it’s a cumulative effect.”
In the study’s next phase, researchers will look at people in their 20s, 40s and 60s who did and did not sustain concussions during high school sports, trying to learn if there is an increasing effect of concussion as the study subjects age.
Researchers from the departments of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and Neurology, and the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center also participated in the study.