As if they weren’t troublesome enough, migraines – those crippling, high-octane headaches – may also raise your risk of cognitive decline.

Canadian researchers have found a link between migraines and dementia. But don’t panic just yet. Let’s first get a better understanding of this painful enemy and then unpack the findings of the newest study1. . .

According to the World Health Organization,2 (WHO) almost one in four U.S. households has at least one person who struggles with migraines. The affliction discriminates by age and gender:  It’s most common in women and those between 18 and 44 years of age.

According to the WHO, migraines are typically caused by the release of inflammation in the blood vessels and nerves in the head region. For more information on the different types of headaches read this article on our sister site. You’ll also learn the top signs that your headache isn’t normal and when to worry.

Now, let’s dig into the new research on the dementia connection…

Triple the Dementia Risk

At the start, researchers noted that dementia is the most common neurological disease in older adults, whereas headaches, including migraines, are the most common neurological disorder across all ages.

The Manitoba Study of Health and Aging examined 679 adults aged 65 and older who did not have dementia.

In what’s referred to as an observational study, participants first filled out a questionnaire on their medical history, including the incidence of migraines, if any. It’s important to note here that the sample was mostly made up of women (61.9 percent) with an average age of 75.

After five years, the researchers revisited the participants to determine whether they had developed dementia. The results were interesting…

Of the 679 participants, 7.5 percent had developed dementia. That broke down into roughly 5.1 percent with Alzheimer’s and 1.9 percent with vascular dementia. Curiously, none of the men who reported having migraines were diagnosed with dementia.

In this study, women with dementia were three times more likely to have experienced migraines than those without dementia. It’s important to note that there was no link between migraines and vascular dementia, which is caused by impaired blood flow to the brain.

“We don’t yet have any way to cure Alzheimer’s disease, so prevention is key,” said Suzanne Tyas of the University of Waterloo in Canada, a lead author of the study.3 “Identifying a link to migraines provides us with a rationale to guide new strategies to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.”

My comment is that this study is too small to be conclusive, but it certainly makes me concerned.

Migraines are so painful I don’t suppose people need an additional reason to seek treatment, but now they’ve got one.

Other Research Points in the Same Direction

This most recent study isn’t the first to find a connection between migraines and dementia risk. Maybe it has something to do with cardiovascular risk factors? Indeed, past research found that cardiovascular risk factors, such as hypertension and diabetes, can increase your risk of dementia.

Additionally, there’s some evidence that long-term migraines may change brain structure, triggering destructive effects. A 2013 study5 examined how migraines contributed to structural brain changes, including white matter abnormalities, and changes in gray and white matter.

This link between migraines and Alzheimer’s is interesting and I’ll keep my eye out for larger studies. At this point, I am taking this latest finding with a grain of salt.

Perhaps future research can explore whether factors such as migraine medications may affect this link. As my readers know, many meds increase dementia risk. In this study I have to wonder whether the problem was the migraines themselves or the drugs the participants were likely taking.

In the meantime, I’ll continue advocating for wise lifestyle choices that keep our brains healthy as we age.