One of the things that people often fear about getting older is the possibility that they might get Alzheimer’s disease, a terrible condition that destroys the mind by destroying the brain.
Many of us shudder at the thought that if we get Alzheimer’s, we will lose our ability to plan and think, or even to remember who we are. Alzheimer’s is indeed a terrible disease of unknown origin that destroys not only the brain, it destroys identities and lives, and ravages entire families.
And while it’s true that Alzheimer’s disease has already claimed, and will continue to claim many millions of minds, many of us are facing a much more likely, and much more immediate danger to our brains. And many of us are paying very little attention to this potential brain destroyer.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people suffer serious, permanent damage to their brains because of traumatic head injury. Survivors of brain trauma are often left with long-term damage to their ability to think and to learn, to remember and plan, and they may suffer permanent loss of body movement. Family members can be drained trying to look after a loved one who has suffered brain trauma, and savings can be wiped out.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the leading cause of such devastating brain injury is automobile accidents. Other leading causes of serious head injury include falls in the home, sports injuries and diving accidents. In the United States, gunshot wounds are another frequent cause of long-term brain injury.
The tragedy of brain damage caused by accident is made worse because many of these accidents were preventable in the first place. We don’t like to think about accidents, and when we do, we tend to think, “It won’t happen to me”.
Your brain is an incredibly fragile organ. That’s why it’s protected by being inside your bony skull. But no matter how thick your skull is, it can’t protect you from all the blows you may encounter.
If you are inside a moving car for example, and you come to a sudden stop, your brain is still moving forward in the few seconds it takes you to come to a complete halt.
The jarring impact can rip apart the delicate connections between one brain cell and another that are required for the transmission of communication within your brain. And the swelling of brain tissue after an accident can kill many brain cells, causing widespread damage from which it may be very difficult to recover.
You can greatly reduce your risk of suffering a traumatic brain injury in an automobile or bicycle accident by taking simple precautions.
Whenever you are a passenger or a driver in a car, always wear a three-point shoulder and lap seat belt. Never, never, never drink and then drive. And never get into a car if the driver has been drinking or taking mind altering drugs. Being under the influence of other drugs also impairs the driver’s ability to avoid accidents.
If you’re going to ride a bicycle or motorcycle, your most precious possession, your brain, will be a lot safer if you wear an approved helmet that has been fitted properly.
When playing rough and tumble sports, be sure to wear the recommended protective gear for your head.
Encourage your family members to also follow these rules.
Young people, particularly children, are better able to recover fully after a fairly serious brain trauma than an older person might be. In the young, the brain is still plastic, and new pathways in the brain can develop more easily.
Older people are far more vulnerable to damage from head trauma than younger people are.
Older people have smaller brain volume to begin with, and quite often the circulation of blood within the brain has become less efficient. The brains of older people have a reduced ability to develop new pathways between brain cells to compensate for brain damage.
Damage to brain function after a minor head injury may not show up for several days and may not be recognized by the victim. In fact, the brain-injured person will often deny that anything is wrong.
Quite often, brain damage after an accident may manifest as a personality change. A person who has experienced a brain injury may become angry, depressed, unable to work or get along in social situations. He or she may not connect these personality changes to the accident.
If neurological damage is suspected after head injury, no matter how minor the incident appeared at the time, it’s very important that a complete medical evaluation be done immediately. New imaging technology has made it far easier to pinpoint damage that previously would have gone undetected.
Although modern hospital emergency rooms with their high-tech, high cost equipment can perform what look like miracles with mangled bodies and brains, our priority should be to prevent accidents from happening in the first place.
And fortunately, with a little more care and attention, many brain injuries can be avoided altogether.