Last month, the actor Chris Hemsworth announced he’s taking a break from acting after learning through genetic testing that he carries two copies of the APOE4 gene variant, sometimes called the “Alzheimer’s gene.” Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, a general term for the loss of cognitive function marked by a severe decline in memory, thinking, and reasoning.
Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells; however, it is not always clear what triggers this damage. Hereditary factors, like inheriting copies of the APOE4 gene, can increase a person’s likelihood of developing dementia, although having copies of this variant doesn’t necessarily mean that a person will definitely develop the condition. In addition to family history, researchers have identified other risk factors that can raise the risk of developing one or more kinds of dementia.
Some of these risk factors are well-documented in the medical literature. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, some 40% of dementia cases can be at least partly attributed to twelve lifestyle-related risk factors:
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Poor diet
- High alcohol consumption
- Low levels of cognitive engagement
- Traumatic brain injury
- Hearing loss
- Social isolation
- Air pollution
But as people worldwide live longer and dementia becomes increasingly prevalent, researchers are starting to uncover a strong association between severe cognitive decline and one of the world’s most common neurological concerns: recurrent headaches.
The Link Between Headaches and Dementia
There are several different types of headaches with varying causes and characteristics. They are often divided into two categories: primary and secondary. With primary headaches, head pain is the condition, meaning that the headache isn’t a consequence of a disease or external stimulus. Some examples of primary headaches include migraine, tension and cluster headaches, and hemicrania continua.
Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are either a symptom of a health condition or may be caused by an external factor, such as hormonal or sinus headaches, sensory headaches, hangover headaches, etc. The brain is such a complex organ that it can be hard to pinpoint the exact root cause of any given headache. However, many primary headaches are caused by changes in chemical activity, inflammation of the nerves and blood vessels surrounding the skull, or a combination of these and other factors.
When it comes to dementia, several studies have shown that those with severe cognitive decline are more likely to have experienced more headache episodes (cluster, tension headaches, migraine, etc.) throughout their life than those without dementia. In fact, when researchers asked nearly 680 seniors about their headache history and followed up five years later, those who were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease were four times more likely to have reported experiencing migraine attacks at some point.
Currently, theories as to why headaches increase the risk of dementia are still just that; theories. In migraine studies, some researchers have hypothesized that the migraine-dementia link may be related to changes in brain structure, particularly the insular cortex. Other areas, like the temporal cortex, thalamus, amygdala, and anterior cingulate, have also been found to change during a migraine attack and may too be impacted by dementia-related cognitive decline.
But migraines are not the only type of headache that could potentially increase the odds of developing dementia. A meta-analysis published last year in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science revealed that any recurrent headache – especially cluster and tension headaches – could also be a predictor of all-cause dementia, although no cause has been established as of yet.
Preventing or Delaying Dementia
Dementia cannot always be prevented, since some risk factors, like age, genes, and family history, cannot be controlled. However, there are ways to manage other risk factors to cut down your risk or delay the onset of the disease. Here are some easy actions you can take to support your brain health today:
Make smart food choices and stay at a healthy weight: Evidence shows that a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and low in red meats and sugar could help curb dementia risk. Conversely, being overweight or obese and having type 2 diabetes can increase your likelihood of developing dementia down the line.
Don’t smoke: Smoking increases the risk of vascular problems, including stroke, which is an important risk factor for dementia.
Manage migraines and headaches: If you suffer from migraines or recurrent headaches, be sure to keep track of your triggers to help reduce the frequency and/or intensity of your attacks (check out our blog for hundreds of resources about headache hygiene and how to prevent and treat migraines). A nutritional supplement with brain-healthy ingredients can also help fill nutritional gaps and support you during migraine attacks.
A final word
Studies show a strong association between all types of headaches and developing dementia later in life, particularly when it comes to frequency and intensity. While more research is needed to determine the exact reason for this increased risk, if you suffer from recurrent headaches or migraine, it is important to adopt daily habits to support your brain health and lessen the likelihood, intensity, and severity of your attacks.
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