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What’s the Link Between Migraine and Alzheimer’s Disease?

As more and more people get older, the amount of age-related diseases and disorders will increase, including dementias.

Dementia is the most common neurological disease in older adults, but headaches are the most common neurological disorder across all age groups.1 Migraine is the most severe kind of headache and affects 20 percent of women and 8 percent of men.1 Knowing risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease may help with early diagnosis and can also help providers monitor at-risk individuals more closely for any early signs of disease. Many individuals report cognitive issues with migraine, and there was a study published in September 2019 that examined migraine and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.1

Link between migraine and cognition

Individuals experiencing migraine often report subjective cognitive decline. Migraine has been shown to particularly affect processing speed, attention, memory, verbal skills, and executive function.2 It also affects processing speed and visuomotor speed, as well as delayed verbal memory and basic attention.2 Compared to periods where an individual does not have migraine, the periods where migraine occurs shows a marked increase in cognitive impairment.

Link between migraine and dementia

There are conflicting studies about links between migraine and dementia, but a study published in September 2019 examined possible links between migraine and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The study looked at almost 700 individuals age 65 and older who did not have dementia. The sample was mostly women (61.9 percent).1,3

Five years after the initial questionnaire was filled out, the researchers contacted the participants and asked follow-up questions about dementia. The researchers found a significant association between migraine and all-cause dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, although the association was weaker for dementia than it was for Alzheimer’s.1

The results of the study showed an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s in those who also experienced migraine.1 That being said, the association between migraine and dementia was only significant in women, since no male participants had migraine and developed dementia.1 Those participants who later developed dementia were three times more likely to have reported having migraine than those who did not develop dementia.1,3

Migraine and other risk factors

Vascular risk factors like hypertension, heart attacks, and stroke are known to be associated with the development of dementia, and vascular risk factors have also been associated with migraine.1 Migraine has been shown to be risk factors for cardiovascular disease as well.1 There is an overlap between all of these events and risk factors that lend credence to the association found between migraine and dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

In this particular study, vascular factors did not appear to be a component of the association found. One explanation for the relationship may be that chronic migraine can lead to neurological damage, leading to subsequent cognitive issues and impairment, particularly in the cognitive domains affected by migraine.1 More research is needed to further explore this, however.

Another possible component of the association between migraine and dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are genetic factors. Those with familial Alzheimer’s disease caused by presenilin-1 mutations are more likely to experience migraine or recurrent headaches.1 Chromosomes 1 and 19 are also associated with both migraine and Alzheimer’s disease.1 More research on genetics may provide more detailed information on the link between migraine and Alzheimer’s disease.

Things to consider

Just because an association between migraine and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia was found, this does not mean that a person with migraine will definitively develop dementia. There may be other risk factors that influence the disease process and risk for developing the condition, and more research needs to be done. If someone experiences migraine and is concerned about their risk of developing dementia, talking with their doctor about dementia risk, current lifestyle behaviors, and medical history can provide them with a better picture of their overall risk. Each person is different, and the doctor will be able to better provide information about specific risk factors and the likelihood of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

  1. Morton RE, St. John PD, Tyas SL. Migraine and the risk of all-cause dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and vascular dementia: A prospective cohort study in community-dwelling older adults. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2019. Doi: https://doi-org.proxy1.library.jhu.edu/10.1002/gps.5180 Accessed October 15, 2019.
  2. Vuralli D, Ayata C, Bolay H. Cognitive dysfunction and migraine. The Journal of Headache and Pain. 2018; 19. https://thejournalofheadacheandpain.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s10194-018-0933-4 Accessed October 15, 2019.
  3. Gander K. Migraines A Risk Factor for Developing Dementia and Alzheimer’s, Study Suggests. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/migraines-risk-factor-developing-dementia-alzheimers-study-suggests-1457605 Published September 5, 2019. Accessed October 15, 2019.

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