Childhood head injuries could have long-term effects

Brain injuries during childhood are associated with an increased risk of poor health and social outcomes, according to new research. This includes mental illness and low school attainment.

Child climbing on playground equipment

A study of more than 1 million people in Sweden has shown that there is a risk of long-term health and social problems after childhood brain injuries.

A team based in the UK, US and Sweden, funded by Wellcome, analysed data from more than 1 million Swedes. The researchers examined the long-term impact of having a traumatic brain injury before the age of 25.

They compared their outcomes with people of the same age who hadn’t been injured. They also compared them to siblings, to see whether the effects of injury were independent of other factors, such as upbringing and environment.

When compared with people of the same age with no history of brain injury, they found that those who had a mild, moderate or severe brain injury during childhood were:

  • at twice the risk of being admitted to hospital as a mental health inpatient
  • 50% more likely to use a mental health service
  • 60% more likely to have done poorly at school or to be in receipt of welfare benefits
  • 70% more likely to die before the age of 41
  • 80% more likely to receive disability benefits.

Although the increases in risk were significant, the actual risk of any of these outcomes happening after a head injury were all below 20%. For example, the absolute risk of premature death only increased from 0.8% to 1.6% (see Notes for editors for all absolute risks).

Professor Seena Fazel from the University of Oxford, who led the research team, said: "Our study indicates far-reaching and long-term consequences of head injury. It reinforces what we knew already – that prevention is key."

The study was published today in PLOS Medicine.