We know a lot more than we used to about dementia, which currently affects about 5.8 million Americans. But we still do not have a way to accurately predict who will get it. Now, a new study has found that having a certain type of headache may be a clue to increased risk—especially for Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s what you need to know…and what you should do if you get these headaches.

Dementia is the most common neurological condition in older adults…while headaches are the most common neurological condition in people of all ages. Considering how common both conditions are, researchers from University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, wanted to see if there was a link.

Study: The researchers looked at a severe form of headache, migraines, and dementia among 679 men and women (62% of them were women) age 65 and older who had participated in a long-term study on healthy aging. The data included history of migraine, as well as other factors associated with dementia risk. The participants had no memory problems at the start of the study. The researchers then followed the participants for five years, checking for various forms of dementia, including vascular dementia (dementia that occurs as vessels that supply blood to the brain become blocked, such as following a stroke) and Alzheimer’s disease.

Results: 51 participants were diagnosed with dementia over the study period. Those who had reported a history of migraines were three times more likely to be diagnosed with any type of dementia…and four times more likely to have Alzheimer’s disease, after considering the effects of age, education, gender, depression, diabetes and cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack. However, the association was found only among women, because no men in the study had both migraines and dementia. Migraines and dementia are more common in women. The study authors say larger studies are thus needed to further examine the migraine/dementia association among men.

The researchers also had expected to find a strong association between vascular dementia and migraines, which is considered a vascular condition—blood vessel swelling in the brain is thought to drive the pain. However, no association was found, suggesting that another pathway may be involved in the development of dementia.

What This Means

If further research confirms that migraine history is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, it may pave the way toward earlier diagnosis and enhanced prevention efforts, the researchers hope. For instance, doctors may want to screen earlier for signs of cognitive decline in people with a history of migraines in order to treat other risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease more aggressively. 

Meanwhile, if you have a history of migraines, it might be worth mentioning this research to your doctor. And whether or not you have migraines, it doesn’t hurt to keep up healthy, brain-protecting activities, such as staying physically and mentally active and socially engaged…eating a healthy diet…and managing health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes that put your brain at risk. If it’s good for your heart, it’s also good for your brain!