Scientists have warned that just one blow to the head in childhood can have tragic health consequences even decades later, with a mild childhood concussion raising the odds of mental illness and death by the age of 40.
Oxford University researchers have said that it’s not just severe brain injuries that can have a lasting effect, and that doctors need to be more aware of it. Their findings could even have an impact on the way sports collisions occur and the way that playgrounds are built, and can soon warn against the classic ‘header’ during football games.
Who was studied?
More than 1 million Swedes born between 1973 and 1985 were analyzed during the study, with the cut-off being set at age 41.
The research focused mainly on head injuries hard enough to cause dizziness and feeling a loss of balance, and it was found that 9.1% of participants had suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) by the age of 25. While most participants suffered mild concussions, some had such severe injuries that they spent months recovering in intensive care.
The findings confirmed that the long-term consequences of even the mildest head injuries were severe, with a 76% increase in the likelihood of qualifying for disability benefits due to unemployment for those who had suffered head injuries versus those who hadn’t.
They were additionally 58% more likely to have left school without having completed any qualifications, and twice as likely to have been admitted to hospital for psychiatric care.
The TBI victims had a staggering 72% increase in the risk of mortality by the age of 41, especially those who suffered multiple brain injuries or had them during their late teens and 20’s.
Dr. Sariasian, the lead researcher on the team, said that many cases had gone unreported, with only a few that had actually gone to a hospital. This means that the effects had previously been severely under-estimated and that the risk of long-term consequences needed to be addressed. He said: “The differences between the unexposed and exposed groups is likely larger than we have found here. To summarize, we found even a single mild traumatic brain injury will predict poor adult functioning, and the risk will increase with severity and recurrence and older age at first injury.”
What’s the solution?
Dr. Sariasian published his report in the journal of PLOS Medicine, which stated that it is important to always put the risks into their correct context. Many people who suffer a TBI would not experience any long-term problems: only 1.6% of those who suffered head injuries were found to suffer premature death, which is before the age of 40.
A Canadian neuroscientist, Sheharyar Raza, added his commentary to the piece, saying: “The solution is not to trivialize concussions; neither is it to pursue a risk-free lifestyle because excess sedentary activity can also contribute to poor functioning in adulthood.”
Professor H. Williams of the Exeter University said that it does not mean that children should be banned from playing contact sports, but that parents should simply become more aware of the consequences of head injuries in order not to simply neglect them.
He said: “Care is needed, especially in managing a child’s return to play, so that they don’t get injured again when they are still suffering from an injury, and managing their return to school. We also need to make sure the rules are followed – more than 20% of concussion injuries in rugby appear to happen during foul play.”
The chief executive of Headway, a non-profit organization dealing with brain injuries, said that the research is a clear warning signal that the physical and psychosocial implications of TBI’s can last a lifetime, and that it is vital that all relevant health professionals, teachers, social workers, and parents can become more aware of it.
By identifying and supporting TBI victims at the earliest possible stage, the long-term impact can be minimized and properly managed.