Alzheimer’s and Headaches

Ask a doctor about a connection between Alzheimer’s and headaches, or Alzheimer’s and migraine, and you’re likely to get one reaction.  Nope, no connection.  That’s all.

Well, you have to forgive people for asking.  First of all, lots of people have migraine, and lots of people get Alzheimer’s Disease.  Naturally, there’s going to be people who for years had migraine, and then developed Alzeimer’s – not because of any connection, just because of the numbers.

Of course, that’s not the only reason people ask.  It’s also because some of the signs of Alzheimer’s are similar to migraine symptoms (and, of course, the most well-known migraine symptom is headache!).

For example, disorientation, trouble with language, changes in mood, problems with thinking in general – though these symptoms usually come and go with migraine, they can be serious enough to make you wonder if it’s the start of something degenerative.

And, in fact, migraine and Alzheimer’s share some comorbid conditions – that is, conditions that go along with both.  For example, depression and hypertension.

So doctor’s will smile and assure you that there’s no connection – it’s natural to think there is, but there isn’t.  Or… is there?

Alzheimer's and Headache?
Alzheimer’s and Headache: Linked?

It’s true that very little study has been done specifically into links between Alzheimer’s and headaches or migraine.  After all, saying that Alzheimer’s patients have headaches is almost like saying that people with headaches get colds – of course, some have both.

But similarities between the two diseases does get notice, and sometimes they are studied together (see for example Age and Aging 2002, and Huntington Medical Research Institute: Using Lipidomics to Find Biomarkers in Alzheimer’s and Migraine Study Participants).

But in 2009, an interesting paper published online showed some intriguing links.  Written by Amber Nicole Byrd BS, RRT and Shane Keene MBA, MS, RRT-NPS, CPFT, RPSGT, the paper was entitled Migraine Headache: A Precursor to Alzheimer’s Disease?.

The paper did not find that both had the same cause, or that one caused another.  But what it did show was that research on migraine and Alzheimer’s continually touches on the same things – much more often than you would expect.

It’s not just surface level (symptoms).  Alzheimer’s and migraine are both neurological, and it’s almost certain that both have a genetic basis.  There are also signs of neurodegeneration in both, including white matter lesions.

Cardiovascular disease, such as transient ischemic attacks, are also comorbid in both Alzheimer’s and migraine.  Vascular inflammation is also common in both.

Women are also more likely to have either disease.  Again, is this just a numbers game?  Well, levels of estrogen have been a suggested link in both Alzheimer’s and migraine.  Hormone replacement therapy has been suggested as a possible treatment or preventative for both.

Estrogen levels are also related to serotonin levels; serotonin levels are a historic link to migraine, and a suspected link to Alzheimer’s as well.

Glutamate levels are likely to be increased in migraine patients and Alzheimer’s patients.  We’ve talked about treatments for migraine based on glutamate levels recently.

Another hot topic in migraine research is calcium channels.  Recent research has suggested this as a basic mechanism of Alzheimer’s as well.

Is all this just because we’re looking at two neurological diseases?  Or is there a closer link?  The authors of the paper call for further research, and there does seem to be enough evidence to make it worthwhile.  To quote:

In conclusion, there are many factors that are common among sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease and those who suffer from migraine attacks. These commonalities may suggest that those who suffer from migraine attacks in adolescence and adulthood (especially women) may be likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as they age due to genetic, pathological and chemical similarities in the progression of each disorder. Findings of an association between the two disease processes could help lead to earlier diagnosis of AD. Early diagnosis can help reduce or delay some of Alzheimer’s most devastating effects. The intent of this paper is to prod further research on the possibility that migraine may be a predisposing aspect of Alzheimer’s disease.

For now, your doctor is right.  There is no evidence of a direct link between Alzheimer’s and headache or migraine – and no reason to be concerned that migraine is a risk factor more important than the commonly known risk factors for Alzheimer’s (such as age, family history, cardiovascular disease risk factors, and diabetes).

However, more research may be helpful to understand the underlying factors in both diseases, and the treatments for both.  For certain patients with one or the other, the connection may turn out to be very important.

And if you do have any symptoms that may indicate Alzheimer’s – and they aren’t going away – be sure to talk to your doctor.

10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease
Migraine Headache: A Precursor to Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease (Mayo Clinic)

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6 comments… add one
  • Very interesting article. I am a Chiropractor in Reno, NV and I never put much thought into the association between Alzheimer’s and headaches, but now I am intrigued to look into the topic a little more. Thanks for the good information, I am always looking for ways to improve the quality of the care I can provide to my patients so this information will definitely help. Thanks again.

  • Erin Sep 28, 2010

    I average 5 migraines a week. My doc actually recently put me on Namenda, an Alzheimer’s drug. I’m in the middle of week 3, and I can say that the last two weeks have been some of the worst for migraines in a long time. Fewer are responding to Imitrex injections, and those that do seem to recur sooner than “normal.” It could very well be coincidence (we had an extended low pressure system followed by a very, very hot spell), but I wonder if the Namenda is making this worse. I’d be interested to know if anyone else has tried or is trying this med, and what your experiences are.

  • Kathy Oct 12, 2012

    Since my aunt (80 years old) was young, she was prone to migraines. She is now diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I am not a doctor but my first thought was that there must be a relationship between the 2.

  • Linda D. Smith Feb 6, 2013

    My son just turned 40 years old. He has Down’s Syndrome and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007. He has daily headaches and the neurologist says to distract him. He wakes me in the middle of the night complaining of a horrible headache and I give him tylenol or a generic for Excedrin extra strength from Costco. Nothing seems to help. Would appreciate any advice from anyone who had experienced this. Thank you, Linda D. Smith

  • Dr Robert Hayes MD Dec 23, 2015

    my wife had migraine for long time in younger yrs, they abated. Now 80 y.o. She has Alzheimer’s now and started about 7 yrs ago. She is now awakening about 5 mornings a week with. headache, only VERY occ does she have HA any other Time of day. Very unusual, has has all work ups to r/o malignancy brain. She is on Namenda And Exelonpatch, she could not hole rate any higher dose of Exelonpatch due to severe vomiting and doc HA each time we t long time on this low dose Exelonpatch without HA do you think it could be Exelonpatch or Namenda. I know I could stop one or other and see just wondered if either have been known to cause HA

  • Lynn Cammack Feb 25, 2016

    I started researching articles on migraines and Alzheimer’s because I’ve had migraines since the age of 5 (I’m now 61). They are rampant in my father’s family, as is Alzheimer’s Disease. Naturally, I am quite concerned what my family may have to face as I continue to age. My sisters and I nursed our father full time the last three years of his life as he had Alzheimer’s, along with heart disease and slow kidney failure. The thought of putting my husband/children/eldest grandchild through that sort of worry/exhaustion/heartbreak haunts me! Physical exercise is listed as the top priority to maintain health to stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s. Tough to do, when one is forced to spend so much time in bed, in the dark and quiet with Mr. Migraine. I am in week FIVE of this particular migraine. My neurologist terms my headaches as “intractable” which is code for we’ve tried everything and you’re screwed! I can only hope that as more research for Alzheimer’s is done through the years, any link with migraines is also looked into. In my family, I believe it is a medical fact.

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