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Migraine is the most common neurological disorder across all ages. Getty Images
  • Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death for adults in the United States.
  • Now a new study finds that one risk factor of dementia is migraine.
  • But experts point out even people with chronic migraine can take steps to decrease their risk for dementia.

Migraine attacks are a problem for millions of Americans each year, but the long-term impact of this sometimes debilitating condition has been unclear.

Now a new study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry suggests that migraine, the most common neurological disorder across all ages, is an important risk factor of dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death among all U.S. adults and the fifth-leading cause for people ages 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There’s no current cure for this degenerative neurological condition.

Suzanne L. Tyas, PhD, from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and senior author of the study, told Healthline that this early research may help experts better predict who’s at risk for this disease.

“Our results show that we should be paying attention to migraines in Alzheimer’s disease, and that this future research is warranted to fully understand what it is about migraines that affect Alzheimer’s disease, and how we can mitigate this risk,” Tyas said.

Researchers asked 679 seniors, with no history of cognitive issues, about their history of migraine. Over half were women. Their average age was about 76.

After tracking them for 5 years, they found 51 of them had developed dementia.

When factors such as education and age were considered, those with Alzheimer’s disease were over four times more likely to have experienced migraine attacks.

“People with a history of migraines were three times more likely to develop a type of dementia and more than four times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, a major cause of dementia,” Tyas said.

Rebecca Edelmayer, PhD, director of scientific engagement at the Alzheimer’s Association, says randomized clinical trials are still needed to see whether migraine treatment can decrease dementia risk.

Additionally, she points out one reason for the link to dementia is that migraine attacks may affect lifestyle decisions, like not being active or having a healthy diet, that are already known to increase dementia risk.

“More research is needed to understand if the disruption in lifestyle factors caused by migraines, such as poor sleep and disruption of healthy diet, regular exercise and cognitive/social stimulation, which are all known modifiable risk factors in addition to cardiovascular disease, may also play a role in increased dementia risk,” she said.

Tyas says she’s been interested in looking at the impact of migraine after previous research.

“Some years ago, I conducted a study that took a broad-brush look at a large number of possible risk factors, but because of the breadth of the study, it didn’t examine any particular one in depth,” she said.

“A history of migraines was one of the factors that proved interesting from that study, so I’ve always been interested in following up and investigating migraines more fully,” she added.

One interesting finding in this study is that no link was found between migraine and another form of dementia called vascular dementia.

This suggests that migraine attacks aren’t causing memory loss by restricting blood flow to the brain, but by another mechanism.

“Vascular dementia is a decline in cognitive ability as a result of vascular injury, but Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder,” said Dr. Cristina Wohlgehagen, a neurologist at Texas Health Dallas who wasn’t associated with the study.

While Tyas expected a link between Alzheimer’s disease and migraine, she found it interesting that cardiovascular issues weren’t a factor.

“I was surprised that this association wasn’t explained even partly by high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, or other vascular factors we studied. This suggests that migraines are not acting through the vascular system to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, but instead may act through other neurological damage,” Tyas said.

Dr. Gayatri Devi, a neurologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, explains how different forms of dementia can still be intertwined.

“Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a loss of brain cells due to the deposition of protein plaques and tangles, while vascular dementia is caused by a loss of brain cells due to loss of blood flow to brain areas. Many patients have both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, which is called mixed dementia,” she said.

Tyas points out that a goal of the study is to help medical providers identify people at high risk for dementia to help them get treatment early — and even more critically, to adopt preventive strategies to lower their risk.

“Identifying risk factors for dementia may facilitate early identification of at-risk individuals and preventive strategies,” Tyas said in the study.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, early diagnosis is a critical part of treatment.

“The Alzheimer’s Association believes early detection of Alzheimer’s is important to help individuals and their families prepare for the course of their disease. Furthermore, getting an accurate diagnosis can let a person know whether their symptoms are due to Alzheimer’s disease or another cause, some of which are reversible, such as depression or sleep apnea,” Edelmayer said.

Researchers have found a strong association between experiencing migraine attacks and increased risk of developing dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease.

However, there was no link between migraine and developing vascular dementia, which is caused by restricted blood flow to the brain.

More research is needed to find out whether it’s migraine that causes dementia or the way that migraine attacks disrupt important lifestyle factors, like sleep quality, diet, and regular exercise.