It’s not uncommon for all of us to hit our heads occasionally. You might find yourself standing up too quickly and bumping your head on a cupboard door in the kitchen, or you might hit your head as you try to get into the car or climb into bed. For seniors, the risk for these “small” head impacts increases due to reduced vision and slower reflexes. Then, too, falling becomes a real possibility as medications and age-related declines affect balance.
According to a recent study, even mild blows to the head can cause problems with thinking and memory. For the study, researchers had football and ice hockey players wear special helmets during all of their regular season games. While none of the players were involved in hits that resulted in a clinical diagnosis of concussion, the helmets did record data on what happened to the brain during all of the little bumps and blows to the head that resulted from the normal contact associated with playing both sports.
Seventy-nine athletes participated in the study. Researchers evaluated the participants by performing brain scans and memory and learning tests. These tests were administered before and after the football or hockey seasons.
Each helmet also contained a device called an accelerometer which helped to measure the intensity and frequency of any impacts to the head. The researchers discovered that the more the white matter in the brain changed, the worse study participants performed on memory and learning tests. White matter is responsible for carrying messages to different parts of the brain.
The researchers said that it’s not only concussions that medical professionals need to focus on but other impacts as well. None of the players experienced any concussions and yet there were definite adverse changes happening in the white matter of the brain that led to problems with memory and learning.
The researchers want to learn more about what these changes are, how long they are likely to last, and whether or not these changes are permanent.
A concussion is defined as a traumatic brain injury that happens when the body or brain experiences a blow. The common symptoms of brain injuries are headache, fatigue, confusion, nausea, or blurry vision. Most mild impacts to the brain are not diagnosed as concussions. All of these other impacts have not turned up conclusive evidence about their seriousness or lack of effect on the brain. Mild repetitive impacts deserve more attention, the researchers say, as they have now proven with the results of this latest study that these impacts do affect brain function.
Remember to exercise caution when you are on the move, both inside the house and outside. Hold railings and walk slowly and deliberately up and down stairs. Close cupboard doors immediately after use. Wear shoes that give you the best chance to remain balanced and firmly positioned on the ground. Watch out for trip hazards and remove anything that could inadvertently cause a fall. Wear protective head gear when participating in activities like cycling or team sports.
“Even Mild Hits to the Head Might Harm the Brain, Study Finds,” MedlinePlus web site, Dec. 11, 2013; http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_143337.html, last accessed Dec. 24, 2013.
“Concussion and Mild TBI,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site; http://www.cdc.gov/Concussion/, last accessed Dec. 24, 2013.