Adding to a list of struggles that many veterans face upon returning from a combat zone: a new study shows that even mild brain injuries could raise the risk of Alzheimer's later in life.
Researchers, who reported the findings at an Alzheimer's conference in Paris Monday, say this risk also extends to some athletes, primarily football players. Another study looked at former NFL players, which showed that those who had experienced concussions were at elevated risk for mild cognitive impairment, a potential precursor of Alzheimer's.
Advances in technology have allowed more soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to survive bomb blasts, but consequentially, many sustain mild to traumatic brain injuries in the process. The long-term effects for veterans of the post-9/11 generation is still unknown.
"Even a concussion or a mild brain injury can put you at risk," said Laurie Ryan, a neuropsychiatrist who used to work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and now oversees Alzheimer's grants at the U.S. National Institute on Aging.
Dr. Kristine Yaffe of the University of California led the veterans study. Researchers examined medical records for 281,540 U.S. veterans over the age of 55 who did not have a dementia diagnosis at the beginning of the study. Out of those studied, 4,902 of the veterans suffered a traumatic brain injury in combat. More than 15 percent of those who had suffered a brain injury developed a form of dementia, more than double the number of veterans without previous brain injuries who did.
Yaffe said the severity of the brain injury made no difference in the odds of developing dementia.
The study has been touted as the largest ever done on the possible brain injury-dementia connection, and according to Yaffe, the first to look at veterans specifically.
That worries Ryan Lamke, 26, a medically retired Marine who lives in suburban Washington, D.C. He suffered a traumatic brain injury from multiple blast exposures in 2005 in Iraq. "I'm diagnosed as a moderate (brain injury) but it feels like a mild," said Lamke, who relies on electronic calendars and other gadgets to stay organized. He's a student at Georgetown University and works part-time as a government relations intern for a private firm.
"I have to read for twice as long as my classmates" to accomplish what's needed, he said. "I've not found a doctor so far who can give me a true understanding of what's going to happen 20 or 30 years down the road."
Experts say that while young veterans--many not even 30 yet--don't need to be frightened about their future, they do need to be proactive about treating common post-deployment conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, which can potentially lead to cognitive impairment. Veterans who sustained even minor head injuries will also need to be closely monitored in the years ahead.
"While we don't want people frightened to think they're going to be permanently impaired, a mild traumatic brain injury does not necessarily mean" no long-term problems, said Dr. Gregory O'Shanick, a psychiatrist and chairman of the board of the advocacy group Brain Injury Association of America.
But only time will tell what sort of lingering effects the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will have on its veterans as they age, experts say. Their best post-deployment advice: take care of yourself.
"What the people who have had a head injury and read this should do is to exercise and eat right and take their medicines and take their aspirin and do meditation to reduce stress — reduce risk factors that are modifiable," said Dr. David Cifu, national director of physical medicine and rehabilitation for the Veterans Health Administration.