Head Injury Is Associated With Doubled Mortality Rate Long-Term

Summary: People who suffered from head injuries had a two times higher mortality rate than those who did not suffer a TBI. For those who suffered a moderate to severe head injury, the mortality rate was three times higher.

Source: University of Pennsylvania

Adults who suffered any head injury during a 30-year study period had two times the rate of mortality than those who did not have any head injury, and mortality rates among those with moderate or severe head injuries were nearly three times higher, according to new research from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, published today in JAMA Neurology.

In the United States, over 23 million adults age 40 or older report a history of head injury with loss of consciousness. Head injury can be attributed to a number of causes, from motor vehicle crashes, unintentional falls, or sports injuries. What’s more, head injury has been linked with a number of long-term health conditions, including disability, late-onset epilepsy, dementia, and stroke.

Studies have previously shown increased short-term mortality associated with head injuries primarily among hospitalized patients. This longitudinal study evaluated 30 years of data from over 13,000 community-dwelling participants (those not hospitalized or living in nursing home facilities) to determine if head injury has an impact on mortality rates in adults over the long term.

Investigators found that 18.4 percent of the participants reported one or more head injuries during the study period, and of those who suffered a head injury, 12.4 percent were recorded as moderate or severe. The median period of time between a head injury and death was 4.7 years.

Death from all causes was recorded in 64.6 percent of those individuals who suffered a head injury, and in 54.6 percent of those without any head injury. Accounting for participant characteristics, investigators found that the mortality rate from all-causes among participants with a head injury was 2.21 times the mortality rate among those with no head injury.

Further, the mortality rate among those with more severe head injuries was 2.87 times the mortality rate among those with no head injury.

“Our data reveals that head injury is associated with increased mortality rates even long-term. This is particularly the case for individuals with multiple or severe head injuries,” explained the study’s lead author, Holly Elser, MD, Ph.D., MPH a Neurology resident at Penn. “This highlights the importance of safety measures, like wearing helmets and seatbelts, to prevent head injuries.”

This shows the outline of a head
Studies have previously shown increased short-term mortality associated with head injuries primarily among hospitalized patients. Image is in the public domain

Investigators also evaluated the data for specific causes of death among all participants. Overall, the most common causes of death were cancers, cardiovascular disease, and neurologic disorders (which include dementia, epilepsy, and stroke). Among individuals with head injuries, deaths caused by neurologic disorders and unintentional injury or trauma (like falls) occurred more frequently.

When investigators evaluated specific neurologic causes of death among participants with head injury, they found that nearly two-thirds of neurologic causes of death were attributed to neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. These diseases composed a greater proportion of overall deaths among individuals with head injury (14.2 percent) versus those without (6.6 percent).

“Study data doesn’t explain why the cause of death in individuals with head injuries is more likely to be from neurodegenerative diseases, which underscores the need for further research into the relationship between these disorders, head injury, and death,” said Andrea L.C. Schneider, MD, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Neurology at Penn.

Study data was from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study, an ongoing community-based study of 15,792 participants aged 45–65 years, who were recruited from the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Washington County, Maryland, Forsyth County, North Carolina, and Jackson, Mississippi in 1987–1989.

About this TBI research news

Author: Press Office
Source: University of Pennsylvania
Contact: Press Office – University of Pennsylvania
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Head Injury and Long-term Mortality Risk in Community-Dwelling Adults” by Holly Elser et al. JAMA Neurology


Head Injury and Long-term Mortality Risk in Community-Dwelling Adults


Head injury is associated with significant short-term morbidity and mortality. Research regarding the implications of head injury for long-term survival in community-dwelling adults remains limited.


To evaluate the association of head injury with long-term all-cause mortality risk among community-dwelling adults, with consideration of head injury frequency and severity.

Design, Setting, and Participants  

This cohort study included participants with and without head injury in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study, an ongoing prospective cohort study with follow-up from 1987 through 2019 in 4 US communities in Minnesota, Maryland, North Carolina, and Mississippi. Of 15 792 ARIC participants initially enrolled, 1957 were ineligible due to self-reported head injury at baseline; 103 participants not of Black or White race and Black participants at the Minnesota and Maryland field centers were excluded due to race-site aliasing; and an additional 695 participants with missing head injury date or covariate data were excluded, resulting in 13 037 eligible participants.


Head injury frequency and severity, as defined via self-report in response to interview questions and via hospital-based International Classification of Diseases diagnostic codes (with head injury severity defined in the subset of head injury cases identified using these codes). Head injury was analyzed as a time-varying exposure.

Main Outcomes and Measures  

All-cause mortality was ascertained via linkage to the National Death Index. Data were analyzed between August 5, 2021, and October 23, 2022.


More than one-half of participants were female (57.7%; 42.3% men), 27.9% were Black (72.1% White), and the median age at baseline was 54 years (IQR, 49-59 years). Median follow-up time was 27.0 years (IQR, 17.6-30.5 years). Head injuries occurred among 2402 participants (18.4%), most of which were classified as mild. The hazard ratio (HR) for all-cause mortality among individuals with head injury was 1.99 (95% CI, 1.88-2.11) compared with those with no head injury, with evidence of a dose-dependent association with head injury frequency (1 head injury: HR, 1.66 [95% CI, 1.56-1.77]; 2 or more head injuries: HR, 2.11 [95% CI, 1.89-2.37]) and severity (mild: HR, 2.16 [95% CI, 2.01-2.31]; moderate, severe, or penetrating: HR, 2.87 [95% CI, 2.55-3.22]). Estimates were similar by sex and race, with attenuated associations among individuals aged 54 years or older at baseline.

Conclusions and Relevance  

In this community-based cohort with more than 3 decades of longitudinal follow-up, head injury was associated with decreased long-term survival time in a dose-dependent manner, underscoring the importance of measures aimed at prevention and clinical interventions to reduce morbidity and mortality due to head injury.

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