Brain-Injured Troops at Risk for Early Dementia

Mild traumatic brain injury, until recently categorized only as a concussion, has the potential to cause early onset dementia in hundreds of thousands of troops injured in battle. The recognition of this alarming possibility has come slowly to military doctors, as well as sports medicine physicians, and the military itself.

An article in the Sept. 21, 2011, online issue of Nature, recounts the experience of “Burt,” a tactical advisor to a U.S. military bomb disposal unit who spent four months in Afghanistan. During his time there, he was within 50 meters (164 feet) of detonating IEDs (improvised explosive devices) more than 18 times. After leaving the field, he started to have trouble sleeping, nausea, and ringing in his ears.

His memory began to suffer, a problem that only got worse once he came home. Sometimes he wondered why he was there when he found himself in a room in his house. He suggested to his wife that they try a new restaurant for dinner, when they’d actually been there a few nights before.

It’s becoming clear that some types of concussion or mild traumatic brain injury can have lasting and devastating consequences. The military and Pentagon have been slow to recognize or even admit the long-standing threat TBI has posed to the health of its troops. But it is becoming increasingly clear to one researcher who told Nature that TBI suffered by injured troops might progress to early Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

IEDs have not only killed more than 3,000 U.S. and allied troops, they have injured and maimed as many as 30,000. Now it is becoming clear that some injuries that are not visible have been harming the brains of these men and women.

According to the Washington-based Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, the number of troops affected by this type of “silent” TBI already has surpassed 200,000. The Rand Corporation, a non-profit research firm in Santa Monica, California, says the number might reach 320,000.

Many are beginning to believe that Gulf-War Syndrome, a non-descript collection of complaints that has not been fully accepted, is appearing in the form of TBI in many of that war’s veterans.

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