Head injuries linked to abnormal ageing
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Much has been studied and reported about the short-term effects of concussions on young athletes, as well as the potential longer-term outcomes for professional athletes who engage in high-level contact sports like football and ice hockey for many years, putting themselves at risk for multiple concussions and the lesser but still consequential sub-concussive injuries.
But until recently, far less has been understood about the long-term implications, if any, of concussions experienced years ago by recreational athletes. Does a 55-year-old man who played high school football in the '70s and perhaps grew dizzy or "had his bell rung" after a tackle or two need to worry about the state of his brain today, even if he never had a formal diagnosis of concussion?
The emerging answer, according to recent research, would seem to be a cautious "probably not," although there may be reason to monitor how easily names and places come to mind.
For a study published in May in the journal Cerebral Cortex, researchers at the University of Montreal examined the brains of a group of healthy, middle-aged former athletes, all of whom had played contact sports in college about 30 years ago and some of whom had sustained concussions while doing so.
In the years since, the athletes had stopped competing but had remained physically active. None complained of failing memories or other symptoms of cognitive impairment — or at least, not more so than any group of 50- and 60-year-olds would be expected to complain.
The researchers scanned the volunteers' brains using MRI machines and automated measuring techniques that precisely determine the volume and other structural components of various brain segments.
When the Canadian scientists closely parsed the data from the former athletes, they found small dissimilarities between the brains of those who'd been concussed and those who had not. Many of those who'd been hit in the head decades ago now had slightly less volume in the hippocampus, a brain area associated with memory and learning, than those who hadn't been concussed. Many also had slightly thinner cortexes, especially in portions of the brain known to thin with age. Some also showed signs of metabolic slowing and other abnormalities within their brain cells. And many were just a bit less able to recall events and dredge up words and names than the volunteers who'd never been hit in the head.
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