How to Protect Your Brain From Injury

The Wall Street Journal

November 23, 2021

Football season is in full swing, which means concussions are on the minds of players and fans. But traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, aren’t a problem only for athletes who play contact sports. Each year at least 69 million people world-wide suffer a traumatic brain injury.

Considering how precious our brains are to our health and well-being, we should be monitoring them as conscientiously as we do our hearts or joints. If we find out we have high cholesterol, we generally do something about it. Yet too many people let blows to the head go unevaluated, despite the potentially dire long-term consequences.

More than 4.8 million people go to the emergency room for brain injuries in the U.S. each year. The number of people who actually sustain concussions is likely much higher; experts estimate that half of concussions go unreported. That is in part because people tend not to recognize the symptoms of concussion, which include blurred vision, headaches, dizziness and nausea.

The two most common causes of traumatic brain injuries are slip-and-fall accidents, which account for more than half of all incidents, and motor-vehicle accidents. Only 3% of concussions are sports-related. And it isn’t only a blow to the head that can cause a concussion; whiplash can also cause a brain injury. These invisible injuries can have long-lasting side effects. While many brain injuries are minor and require only rest and recuperation, moderate and severe head injuries can lead to complications, including seizures and memory problems.

Anyone who suffers a concussion is significantly more vulnerable to another brain injury. The results include “second-impact syndrome,” which involves increased neurological damage and, in rare cases, death. It is crucial for people to know the status of their brain after a potential injury, so they can take steps to keep this precious organ safe and thriving.

Diagnosing traumatic brain injuries is becoming more sophisticated each year. Doctors no longer rely solely on physical examinations or patients self-reporting their symptoms. They can use CT scans to check for evidence of brain injuries. The Food and Drug Administration also recently approved a blood test developed by my company, Abbott.

The i-STAT TBI plasma test can tell doctors if proteins highly correlated with brain injury are in the blood. Soon, this portable test could be used to help evaluate quickly if someone suffered a brain injury.

Blood tests like these are key tools to help evaluate concussion, especially given the limits of CT scans. They missed 64% of people with the highest levels of injury-correlated proteins that were picked up by a more sensitive MRI test, according to research published in Lancet Neurology.

We routinely monitor our blood pressure and cholesterol and, when something is wrong, we take medication or change our diet and exercise more. We should be just as mindful of our brain health—if not more so.

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